Fall Trip Part 3: O Canada

By Dahna Branyan

Yellowstone, then Glacier and still haven’t spotted a Mountain Goat, Bighorn Sheep or Moose. Hope loomed large for such sightings in Canada, so we headed that-a-way.

We said goodbye to Glacier as we headed north past Whitefish, shaking a fist at Ryan Zinke on the way. The Canadian border folks were very welcoming once they again established that we had brought no guns from Texas.

When you get to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia, BC-93 takes a hard right to start climbing over the Rockies through Kootenay National Park. Radium Hot Springs is populated with a number of chalet-like inns that decorate the town by hanging large pots of flowers from their railings. Gorgeous!

Radium Hot Springs, BC
Radium, BC

Entering Kootenay National Park
Kootenay Entrance

Kootenay is just one of several national and provincial parks that surrounds Banff National Park. Canada set aside a huge chunk of land as part of the common wealth for the enjoyment of their people and the protection of wildlife. And in this part of the world there is a lot of jaw-dropping beauty to enjoy. Unfortunately, we had only planned to stay in Banff National Park so Kootenay was only a drive-thru.

Leaving Kootenay, Looking Toward Banff
Coming Into Banff

After winding our way through Kootenay, we arrived at our Lake Louise campground in Banff. It’s a nice park, with the turquoise Bow River running through it. It does have a peculiar (to us) set up for campers however.

Bow River from our Campground
Campground Bow River

The sites are pull-throughs, wide enough for two RV’s pulling in at opposite directions. For some reason they put the utilities directly opposite of each other, forcing both RV’s to sit directly opposite as well. It’s a little tight and privacy’s a bit scarce.

Pat’s Mountain View – Oh Wait that’s the Rental RV Next Door!
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The Actual View is Better – Whitehorn Mountain
Whitehorn Mountain, from Campground

I suppose they rightly figured that folks would spend most of their time seeing the sights instead of sitting around the campground. So we did just that. Our first full day included provisioning for the week. We took the scenic route, Alberta Hwy 1-A, through the deep emerald forest into the town of Banff. Strains of an old Gordon Lightfoot song started running through my head.

Oh there was a time in this fair land when the railroads did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real


More Majestic

 

Before Banff we stopped to check out a waterfall at Johnston Canyon. The limestone walls of the canyon barely allow enough room for a walkway beside the creek, and often divert hikers over the creek onto the catwalks. Sacha overcame her fear of bridges and hiked like a trooper all the way to the lower falls. It might have been these little guys egging her on.

 

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel

 

Lower Waterfall, Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon Waterfall

After 1-1/2 miles of hiking over catwalks with a bazillion other hikers and their dogs, she was happy to see the back seat of the truck when we returned. After a few more pullouts to enjoy the views, we reached the town of Banff and the local IGA. As expected, Banff is a beautiful resort town crammed full of upscale resorts and inns that were bustling with folks milling about, having coffee, etc. at the many outdoor cafes. The town’s layout defies description – picture a town designed by the drop of pick-up sticks. Streets are narrow, traffic tight, parking nearly non-existent for a big pickup. We got our groceries and got out fast. The IGA did hold it’s own treasure of delicious local fare, especially Suprême créme á l’Erable biscuits. For you non-Frenchie types, that translates to Maple leaf-shaped maple Cream Cookies to which I’m now addicted…and our supply is running thin. Damn! Another monkey on my back.

Township of Banff
Banff

 

As you travel along Highway 1, you’ll notice the smart wildlife overpasses along the way. Tall fences on both sides funnel the critters into these crossings. Hmmmm – you do have to wonder if the apex predators have figured this system out and camp out near the crossings. They are attractively designed and are so much more appealing than the sight of dead deer we see lying on the roadsides of Texas. (To their credit, Montana has built at least one of these north of Missoula.)

Wildlife Crossing
Critter Bridge

After settling in, the next day we traversed the Icefields Parkway up to Jasper, Alberta through Banff N.P. and part of Jasper National Park. It is a breathtaking, jaw-dropping  144 mile drive from Lake Louise to Jasper. O Canada! The parkway takes you past turquoise glacial lakes, enormous rocky cliffs, and large, deep glaciers as the name suggests. Around each bend, another stunning panorama—hundreds of them!

There where the mighty mountains bare their fangs unto the moon,
There where the sullen sun-dogs glare
in the snow-bright, bitter noon,
And the glacier-glutted streams sweep down
at the clarion call of June.
– Robert Service, Heart of the Sourdough

Icefields Panorama

Bow Lake
Bow Lake

Lone Kayaker on Bow Lake
Kayak on Bow Lake

Peyto Lake Below Crowfoot Glacier
Peyte Lake

The truck is going to need a new suspension after negotiating the parking lot before hiking up to see Peyto Lake. Several cars nearly high-centered after dropping into one of the many potholes. The plans to repair it in the spring did not happen.  Don’t trust the guide that says it is an easy hike up to the lake. Whoever wrote that was 18. I will definitely need a new knee after hiking back down the steep incline.

Icefields2Glacier 1Empty BowlColumbia Icefield 2Columbia Icefield 1

We surely weren’t disappointed by the lack of wildlife. Finally – Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats! Even a bear for good measure.

Bighorn 2Bighorn Ewe & LambBighorn Sheep

Black Bear Icefields Pkwy
Mountain Goat 3Mountain Goat 2

Goats -Momma & kid

Bear Video

 

If you have the sound on, you can hear the bear rustling in the browse – we were that close. I was standing on the running board of the truck filming and that would normally be too close for comfort. But I didn’t film the two morons in front of the truck crouched down next to him on the shoulder, filming with their phones. I figured the bear would go for them first. They were still crouched next to him as we drove away. He must have been in a charitable mood because we didn’t hear about any bear attacks the next day. 

We got to Jasper about lunch time and stopped for a picnic/Sacha walk before driving around the town. Although a tourist spot, Jasper  is not nearly as congested as Banff at the other end of the parkway and is dotted with lovely old churches and houses instead of shoulder to shoulder resorts. Wish we could have spent more time there, but there was only time to tag Jasper and head back.

Jasper – Pyramid Peak
Pyramid Peak - Jasper

Church in Jasper, Alberta
Jasper Church

The reverse trip back to Lake Louise was just as stunning and we did make it back to camp before the rain.

Icefields 4

Icefields Pkwy1Fangs
The Massive Mountain Range N of Banff

What a glorious day! We’ve been through many national parks this past year, each one them magnificent, but the Icefields Parkway has to be the big crescendo of this trip. Top of the world, Ma!

Alberta is famous for its wild roses, but the blossoms were long gone before we got there.   There were still many wildflowers to enjoy.

Wildflowers of Alberta

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)
White Buds
White Buds (U. watchamacallit) Allan?
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruiticosa)
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruiticosa)
American Harebell (Campanula rotunifolia)
American Harebell (Campanula rotunifolia)
Yarrow, (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow, (Achillea millefolium)
Butter and Eggs (Linaria Vulgaris)
Butter and Eggs/Common Toadflax (Linaria Vulgaris)
Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)
Out of Place Old Man’s Whiskers/Prairie Smoke? (Geum triflorum)

The following day we ventured next door into Yoho National Park (named for the Cree expression of awe and wonder) to Emerald Lake. On the way we stopped at Kicking Horse Pass to check out the Spiral Railroad Tunnels. Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy was running through my brain again.

Train Emerging from Tunnel on Kicking Horse Pass
Kicking Horse Spiral Tunnels1

For they looked in the future and what did they see
They saw an iron road runnin’ from sea to the sea
Bringin’ the goods to a young growin’ land
All up through the seaports and into their hands
Gordon Lightfoot

These tunnels represent a marvelous engineering feat that allowed the Canadian Railroad to join western Canada to the eastern rails. The first attempt at crossing this pass was a dangerous 4.4% grade, resulting in a runaway train crash that killed a few railroad men. The spiral tunnels, finished in 1909 allow trains to rise and descend at a much safer 2.2% grade. It’s pretty amazing to watch a train cross over itself as it spirals downward. Even though it’s safer, it’s still a dangerous proposition to navigate the tunnels and there have been a number of derailments even in modern times. The video below will give you some idea of what happens about 25-30 times per day.

Single Train Traversing Kicking Horse Pass

 

Stopping at the Yoho Visitor Center, I asked where we might spot a moose and was told there were only 5 moose left in Yoho. It seems that when the elk were reintroduced to the park, they scarfed up all the moose browse along with their own. Moose, being more discriminating, ran short on food and have dwindled in numbers. I would imagine there are other factors that contribute as well – disease, predators, forest fires, etc. Guess we’ll have to put Alaska on the bucket list for a moose sighting.

Further on, Emerald Lake was as stunningly emerald as its name implied. There were a few canoes on the placid lake. We watched one launch with a Husky aboard. The Husky bit at the water until he could stand it no longer and jumped for shore. The owner had to reel it in by it’s leash and get it back aboard. No mean feat to retrieve a drenched Husky in a canoe. All the while, a lone loon looked on in disbelief.

Emerald Lake
Emerald Lake - Yoho

Husky Headed For Dry Land
Husky

Common LoonLoon on Emerald Lake -Yoho

Not far from there was Natural Bridge. It’s a huge boulder that blocked the Yolo River. Flowing water and time had eroded the center away to form a bridge.


Coincidentally, this was also the site of one of 24 WWI internment camps where Ukranian and Europeans, deemed enemy aliens, were held under forced labor conditions. Sadly, it appears the USA wasn’t in it alone. Canada, however, has erected interpretive centers at these sites as part of reconciliation efforts to acknowledge these internments under its War Measures Act.

We spent Sunday visiting the lakes west of Banff. Lake Minnewanka was high on the list of attractions, so it was our first stop. Even though it was a gray Sunday morning, hundreds of other folks had the same idea and there was no place to park. We decided just to see it as we drove over the dam. It’s a large lake wedged into the surrounding mountains, but it’s a reservoir and does not have that turquoise color or charm of the glacial lakes so we got a photo and headed south.

Lake Minnewanka
DSCN3559

Two Jack lake was the next stop, a pristine little mountain lake. We met some nice folks with a Shiba Inu, who looked like a tiny Sacha. She was about to take her first canoe trip and was decked out in a life jacket.

Father and Son Canoeing on Two Jack Lake
Father &Son on Two Jack Lake Banff

Mini Sacha (Shiba Inu) Getting Ready for Her First Canoe Trip
Mini-Sacha (Shiba Inu) going Boating

There’s a lovely campground at Two Jack lake. If we ever come back this way, I’d like to be set up for boondocking so we can stay here. Our last stop was Johnson lake. The clouds were starting to burn off and lots of folks were out enjoying the day.

Johnson Lake
Johnson Lake

What about Lake Louise, you might ask? We saved it for our last day, waiting for a sunny week day where it might not be so congested. Park officials recommend shuttling in to the lake because parking is scarce – such is the case for any national park attraction. We decided to take a chance and as we pulled up to the parking lot, an attendant told us we’d have to go back down near our campground and shuttle back up. Groan. But as we were rolling past the parking lot, a second attendant waved us into a waiting space. WooHoo! 

Sierra Larkspur (Delphinium glaucum) at Lake Louise
Sierra Larkspur (Delphinium glaucum)

The famous Lake Louise is famous for a reason. The lake sits in a bowl nestled in the mountains. Glacier-fed, the bowl is filled with exquisite milky jade green water. It is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever beheld.

Lake Louise, Banff National Park
Lake LouiseDSCN3669

DSCN3675
For those looking for more adventure, beyond the lake sits the Plain of Six Glaciers, which is one of the premier hikes in the park. At the top of the trail there is a tea house where one can sit and enjoy the view before descending back down. If we were younger with better knees…  For those interested, I came across this wonderful description of the hike: http://banffandbeyond.com/plain-of-six-glaciers-the-other-tea-house-at-lake-louise/


Pilot Mountain

Castle Mountain

While we could have spent much more time exploring Banff and the surrounding parks, after five days, we felt we understood the rugged splendor of the area. It was time to move on, so we wound our way down the foggy mountains and across the plain to Medicine Hat, aka “Gas City” on the Saskatchewan River. We passed a number of small pronghorn herds on the drive – we must have seen over 100. Medicine Hat was first established as a rail hub. As you might expect, the gas industry figures prominently in the town’s industry. But brick and pottery industries also grew up around the local deposits of coal and clay.  Now the city is turning its eyes toward solar. While a solar generated steam plant near our campground shut down, (lower gas costs made it economically unfeasible)  large solar farms are in the works. We also saw a few large commercial greenhouses around town which grow produce as well as evergreen seedlings for reforestation projects.

The Gas City Campground turned out to be little oasis in the prairie just off the river. Lots of trees and friendly people, we enjoyed our stay. 

Gas City Campground
DSCN3760DSCN3726

We found a wonderful little restaurant called the Rustic Kitchen nearby and had a great time visiting with our Estonian waiter, Xander. We really liked this town. It had a nice wide-open feel and from the looks of it, a vibrant cultural center and a great wildlife refuge, Police Point Park. Unfortunately, we were there at the wrong time – the passerines had already migrated and the waterfowl had yet to start their migration south. Even though it is a lovely park, the only bird we saw or heard was a Phoebe in the parking lot as we left. It wasn’t a total loss though. Sacha had a wonderful time. I’d still like to come back when the birds are here.

Flicker Gas City
Northern Flicker, Gas City Campground
Chickadee GSC
Black-capped Chickadee, Gas City Campground

Our time was up in Canada for now so we packed it up to head back to Montana, and Pat’s chosen destination, the Little Big Horn.

 

Fall Trip Part 2: Glaciers Slip-sliding Away

by Dahna Branyan

We hated to end our visit with Rocky and Elaine, but were anxious to get moving and visit Glacier National Park. Flathead Lake and a couple of wildlife refuges, Ninepipes and Pablo, were on the way but there was no good way to stop and see them with the trailer in tow.

Trumpeter Swans In Flight
trumpeters in flight

First Glimpse of Flathead Lake
Flathead Lake from Polson Overlook

We chose to go up the west side of Flathead Lake. which offers long gorgeous views of the lake and coves dotted with marinas and moored boats.  At the top of the lake sits Kalispell and our campground, Rocky Mountain Hi RV Park. It was a short drive so we had time to look around and meet our neighbors, Cal and Cam from North Dakota plus their handsome Belgian Shepherd Zeus. They come to the this park every year and plan to retire in Kalispell in a couple of years. I can see why – Kalispell has everything you need with fabulous views in all directions and recreational opportunities abound. Still a bit cold for our retirement dreams, but Cal and Cam are used to the cold.  Brrrr.

White Cliffs on Flathead Lake

White Cliffs along Flathead lake

Bald Eagle Seen From Our Campground
Bald Eagle

After getting the trailer unhooked from the truck and.hooked up to utilities we took Sacha for her introductory stroll through the campground and territory-marking ritual. In spite of a “six foot leash at all times” rule, Sacha was attacked by loose dogs twice on our little stroll. The first time by a pit/lab mix that jumped on her back while trailing a rope. In no time she spun out of her collar and onto his back, sending him running for his owner’s RV door. Sacha almost went in after him before we could get her back under control.  Adding to the melee, Pat is growling at the apologetic owner about keeping his dog tied up. Sacha was feeling pretty feisty when we rounded the corner and a pint-sized dog trailing his leash rushed out to bite her belly, but Sacha rolled him on the pavement and sent him screaming to his owner. After apologies were made, but not by us, we got Sacha back in the trailer before any more incidents. Now when asked what kind of dog Sacha is, we say part Siberian Husky, part Cujo.

Female Western Tanager – Rocky Mountain Hi Campground
Female Western Tanager

Aside from the dog spats, the folks we met were extremely nice – and mostly from Canada. Kalispell appears to be a good cheap trading post for Canadians. One lady I met said she had celiac disease and Kalispell offered more options for gluten-free foods. #We’re Number One!

Juvenile American Robin Immature Robin

The next couple of days were dreary, rainy days we are becoming accustomed to on our travels. (I think we’re towing our personal rain cloud behind us some days.)  We decided to hold on seeing Glacier until the weather improved and opted to meander back down the east side of the Flathead Lake. Aside from being a lovely drive, it seems to be the side famous for Flathead cherries. Orchards pretty much lined the east side of the lake. But when we stopped to load up on cherries, we were told that no one in the area actually grows Flathead cherries anymore because they don’t ship well. We got their Sweetheart cherries and were not disappointed. They were the best cherries we’ve ever eaten. The blueberries they grew weren’t bad either.

Red-Necked Grebes at Flathead Lake
Juvenile Red-necked Grebes Cruising Flathead L.

Still gloomy and foggy the next day, the weather was more suited for ducks rather than taking in  the sights of Glacier. Ducks – there’s a thought. We headed back down along Flathead Lake again to visit the Ninepipes Wildlife Refuge that we’d passed coming up this way. There were lots of ducks, but not having waders to get in close, good photos were hard to get with my lens. The ducks were also a bit harder to distinguish since nesting season is over and the males have assumed their basic or “eclipsed” drab plumage.  I’m not too good at identifying them in this phase, but I did manage to ID  a few.  And saw a few “lifers” for me. The Trumpeter Swans were in abundance though and I even managed to snag a photo of a tagged swan. He was an immature bird, locally tagged,  but I reported the sighting just the same.

Tagged Trumpeter

Bufflehead Ducks – Immature MalesBuffleheads

Great Blue Heron Hiding in the Shadows
GBH Hiding in the Shadows

American Coot
DSCN2967

Mission Mountains Overlooking Ninepipes NWR near Ronan, MT
Mission Mountains

Red-breasted Mergansers
DSCN2952

Finally the clouds lifted enough the following day to head up to Glacier and the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road. By clouds lifting, I mean halfway up the mountains. From the west, the road first takes you through the evergreen forests past the glacial Lake McDonald. There are a number of pull-outs to enjoy the view, but like other park roads we’ve travelled of late, most of the pullouts are full when you pass them so you just enjoy the views as you drive.

Red Rocks – Glacier National Park
Red Rocks

Mountain View from Red Rocks
From View Red Rocks

A Distant Glacier
Shrinking Glacier

The road itself is an engineering marvel.  Fifty miles long and completed in 1933, it spans the park from east to west.  From the west it begins in the dark cedar/hemlock forest.  As the road rises, the forests give way to the rocky cliffs, roadside waterfalls and finally to alpine meadows. The views are ethereal, made much more so by the layer of clouds girdling the mountains. Simply gorgeous. As you climb, the road narrows and gets more challenging with hairpin curves, especially when you are driving a large pickup. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the narrow road offers steep cliff walls on one side and steep dropoffs on the other, often unprotected by. guardrails.  Not for the faint of heart. The elevation  makes it difficult to keep the road clear of snow and it’s often late spring /early summer before the road opens for traffic for a few short months. One vehicle plummeted over the edge earlier this summer, forcing rescuers to rapel down the mountain to retrieve the injured.  It might be worth it to rent a smaller car for this day trip.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top
-Robert Service, Spell Of The Yukon

DSCN3019.jpg

Going to the Sun

DSCN2999 (1)

Even though park officials previously announced that the glaciers would be gone in 2020, they persist. Pictures show that, thanks to several years of heavy snowfall,  at least two of the glaciers have grown slightly in size, prompting officials to remove the signs concerning their imminent demise. Overall though, all of the glaciers are severely reduced in size over the past 50 years, some as much as 80%, according to a New York Times article. If you want to see them, I recommend moving it up on your list.

After reaching Logan Pass, we descended down the east side of the park to St. Mary Lake. This side of the pass is less forested and the valley is wider with more meadows.  While we considered turning around and viewing Going to The Sun Road from the opposite direction, our decision was made by a road construction project that cost us an hour on the way down. Not wanting another hour’s wait, we decided to return via Hwy 2 which skirts the bottom of the park. On the way there, however, we more than made up for the wait by another detour construction project that will probably cost the truck a realignment job when we get home.

The Sole Wildlife Specimen, A Cedar-Waxwing spotted while waiting for the road construction
Cedar Waxwing

Hanging Valley with a Glacier Remnant & Bird Woman Falls Below
Hanging Valley&Bird Woman Falls

St. Mary Lake
St. Mary Lake

Although we didn’t see any wildlife as we drove through the park, they are surely present. I am sure that the almost bumper to bumper traffic sends them deeper into the park. For hikers, the thrill of seeing bighorn sheep and mountain goats is more certain.   The sublime scenery throughout the park was enough to take in for one day.

The view from the East Entrance (and our exit)Glacier East Entrance

Trumpeter Takeoff – Ninepipes NWRTrumpeter Takeoff

 FALL TRIP, Part 1: Back in the Saddle Again

By Pat Branyan

Spring sprang with a vengeance in Comanche, but after about six weeks we managed to get every blade of grass cut on our 20 acres. That included the pecan orchard after picking up about a dozen trailer loads of limb fall and grinding up twice that much in place with the “shredder” (brush hog). On the positive side, the rain did generate a great hay crop and Angel rolled; 61 big bales in two cuttings. Of course, everybody else had a great crop too, so the price fell through the floor, landing well below production cost.

Our Personal Deer Herd Munching on the Third Cutting (sent by Becky Nelson)
Third Cutting.jpg

That’s farming. Bad crop, high price; good crop, low price—either way you’re screwed. We farmers are a proud bunch of losers though because the president calls us great patriots. Even though his views of the loser community are well known, we’d gladly take a bullet from him on 5th Avenue. Maybe two.

The rains juiced our old pecan trees too. They’re setting good pecan clusters of three or four which we refer to as threesies and foursies. Some growers have trees that set threesomes and foursomes, but our trees would never do that.

By the time we left for the Fall Trip on August 13th, the place looked pretty darned good considering who owns it. Patty came up a couple of days early to housesit again, per usual, and, as we went over all the operations, she wore a sardonic mien. When I started to go over the steps involved in running the two old Cub Cadet riders, she gave me a look that said, ‘I know more about these mowers than you do, bud.’ That could be true since she’s mowed the place almost as much as I have.

It took us six days to get back to Missoula where we stored our Arctic Fox trailer after the Spring Trip. On the first day we headed back to the same motel in Dalhart, Tx. where we stayed coming home a few months earlier. It was good then; quiet, clean and a fine meal in the evening. This time the young lady desk clerk asked us if we’d like ear plugs because of the trains. I thought, ‘Huh?’ Being a wise guy I said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ ear plugs. We like trains.” She cooed through pursed lips, “Oooh-Kay,” and handed me the room keys.

Wild Raspberries in Yellowstone
Raspberries.jpg

I love trains, have since I was five when my granddad bought me an American Flyer “Comet” train set. I’d sit on the floor and watch it go around the little oval track gradually turning the transformer knob until it jumped the track and landed on its side, its silver passenger cars all askew. I still have that old train set, and it would be worth a lot of money if it wasn’t so banged up. The last time I rode a train was the Santa Fe out to boot camp from Houston to San Diego. I enjoyed reading Sammy Davis Jr’s paperback I bought at a depot on the way, Yes I Can. It was nearly three days of fine clickity-clack loafing followed by many more days of not loafing for a single minute.

Well, the moral of the story is this: When the girl offers you ear plugs, put your rapier wit back in your hip pocket and take the damn things and jam them firmly into your head’s big dumb ears. Later, while walking Sacha, the train blasted its hell horn, and I think it changed my identity. Sacha did the dog version of Saint Vitus’ dance and Dahna shrieked in agony but, like in space, you couldn’t hear her. Or anything else for about half an hour. Also, don’t order tacos al pastor in Dalhart. Anywhere in Dalhart. They’re not a thing there, trust us.

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) – Yellowstone National Park
Fireweed.jpg

Moving right along, we headed for Cheyenne, WY via the plains of eastern Colorado. We decided to take this route because I-25 isn’t much fun even in Colorado. U.S. 385 runs due north out of Dalhart and leads to Springfield, CO. I hadn’t been to Springfield in exactly 50 years, and I wanted to see how it changed from a dusty little town then to what it might be now. Sure enough, like most places, it had swelled in population and possessed all of the franchised accoutrements of what Greg Brown calls the blandification of America. Still, I was happy to be there again.

Back in the summer of ’69 I got the bright idea to drive from Houston to Colorado without a map, just using the sun and stars. I made a lot of good memories on that trip and suppressed the bad ones.

Magnificent Rock Formation in Yellowstone
Rock Formation.jpg

The general direction was northwest and I was going good until I got into a spiderweb of gravel roads out in the Oklahoma panhandle. I broke into Kansas and fell back into Oklahoma four times and started to doubt my sanity when, finally, I crossed the Colorado line with a cheer nobody heard. I ate a good lunch in Springfield and moved on west. Somehow, I spent the night on the ground in the mountains with an encampment of Children of God cultists, but they were sweet back then and still sensible enough to leave me alone. Lots of stars.

The next night I met a group of college guys while shooting pool and drinking 3.2 beer in a joint in Boulder. They invited me to stay with them in their big rooming house nearby. The next day they left on a hike, but I stayed behind and watched the moon landing on a black and white TV with a lonely UC Physics professor who lived in the house. He explained to me the entire process from launch to touchdown in one of my life’s luckiest breaks. That’s when I first started thinking about the singular power of science. But, I never would have guessed I’d teach it myself one day. Kismet and all that.

Dahna was partying on an Italian ship in the Pacific coming home from a year in Australia. She’d watched the landing by satellite at sea and then saw the luminous streak of the Apollo 11 capsule high in the sky as it descended toward splashdown. That’s pretty cool too, but Dahna didn’t consider science until, as a math major, she took Dr. Walter’s Organic class. She changed her major (keeping math as a minor) and became a chemist. I’m pretty positive she’s the only person since Newton who could study Calculus while watching TV at full blast and still ace three semesters of the stuff. I ground out a low B in one semester myself and was grateful.

I knew for sure she was special in a Rain Man kind of way, but without most of the quirks, when I overheard her explain a complex organic reaction mechanism to one of her befuddled professors. Later, he came out to the house and brought her an expensive bottle of wine, but she fed him hamburgers. I still had some pull.

Dahna got tired of eastern Colorado quick because mountains are a big thing to her and there aren’t any there. I laid back in a slouch and drove along easy, relaxing all the way with a little smile that annoyed her no end. With a secret little giggle to myself I amped it up to 11 when I asked her to play K.D. Lang on the iPod. She hates K.D. Lang for some reason that’s a mystery to me, and she’d happily throw Emmy Lou (“What’s that bitch whining about?”) Harris into the snake pit too. Everybody else loves little Emmy Lou just like they worship Van Morrison. But, if Trump shot Van on 5th Avenue I’d have to consider voting for him.

When it comes to music, books, movies, pickups, dogs, whiskey or just about anything else (except religion and politics), personal tastes are almost infinitely at variance, and competence and good sense seem to have nothing to do with them. For instance, Pat Zelman does not like the soaring arias of Roy Orbison, full stop. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Heck, “Crying” was mine and Linda’s song in Jr. High back in ’62. My love for Roy is strong, but doesn’t approach my love for Pat. Nowadays, I have to listen to his operatics with a critical ear, rooting around in each song to find out where Pat’s displeasure lies. I’m still looking, but the clues are ethereal and waft away in the clanking windmills of my mind..

Apparently, just thinking about the plains of eastern Colorado can make your mind wander off just as fast as driving through it. Apologies. 

It didn’t take too long to get back to Dahna’s mountains as we met I-25 north of Denver, barely nicking its crazy anytime traffic. Actually, every city, town and wide spot now has crazy traffic with jillions of people scooting around all over the place going wherever the hell they go. It’s way too many people having way too much fun sex if you ask me, but what can you do?

We got to the room in Cheyenne in fairly short order and nothing much happened which is typical of motels. I remember telling Dahna about staying in Cheyenne at a motel on that same solo trip in ’69 and that I watched TV from the bed and saw Milburn (“Doc! Doc!”) Stone co-host a local fair/rodeo thing. She yawned and asked, “And…?” I shrugged, “That’s it.”

Lonely Bull Bison-Yellowstone N.P.
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In the hallway Sacha’s blue eye stopped a young guy sent on a mission by his girlfriend who stayed in their room. He was to take a picture of the moon with his phone that she told him was, in his own words, “wah wah wah…” Dahna lost patience and cut him off, “Waxing!” “Yeah, that’s it,” he said, “It had been in geb geb gib…” “Gibbous,” I said. “Right!” he was delighted, “That’s what she called it!” This little fandango went on for awhile until we taught him a little moon trick, and he took notes by ballpoint on his palm. He said, “Cool! I bet she don’t know ‘bout this.” He warned us about bears then stepped outside with his phone.

Black Bear-Yellowstone
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You probably do know ‘bout this but for those lacking in lunar literacy: If you can cup the lighted curve of the moon with your right hand, it’s waxing. If you can cup it with you left, it’s waning. If you can cup it with both hands, it’s full you idiot. 

Since I donated my left hand to the Containment Theory long ago, the moon’s always waxing as far as I’m concerned. But, you’re good to go.

On the Spring Trip we made a pretty good tour of west Yellowstone, but we didn’t make it to the eastern side because the park’s too big. The west side is magnificent, but the east side appealed to us even more. Here you get the long, long valley view with the mountains generally all around but far enough back to get super wide side-to-side views upslope. The Yellowstone and Lamar rivers run through the whole thing in turn making its huge vistas perfect for spotting all the famous avian and terrestrial wildlife that wheel and romp there.

Yellowstone Lake – After The Fire
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We only had a day to drive through east Yellowstone, so we reserved a room at an old motor court near the entrance, a bit west of Cody. Dahna didn’t like it too much, thinking it smelled a little musty. I thought it smelled a little doggy which was fine by me and Sacha. The amazing thing about the place was its clear view of the Smith mansion up on an high hill adjacent.

Frances Lee Smith was an well-respected engineer who lived and worked in Cody not that long ago. He got a bee in his bonnet about building a monument to himself, a mansion that reached for the sky. But, like the Tower of Babel, something had to go wrong. One day in 1992, working at the top without a safety tether, he slipped and fell five or six storeys to his reward, the Darwin, proving that stupidity isn’t confined to the lower percentiles of the IQ scale. The town left the thing the way it stood that day as a memorial to Smith alongside many others dedicated to its namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody, who’s just as dead but more famously. Still, you can read about Smith on the internet.

Smith Mansion
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If you go to Cody try to find the little bar and grill a bit down the road toward Yellowstone. Can’t remember the name. They make just about the best hamburger, or bison burger (I guess), you ever had and that’s saying a mouthful. Wonderful fries with A1 sauce right there on the table without having to ask. No Fox, just good baseball on the big overhead TV with no sound and a wry, no BS, waitress right out of a Bogart movie. Perfect. You can gas up there just before the entrance to Yellowstone and fill up your car down the street.

Upper Falls – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
GCof Yellowstone Upper Falls

Lower Falls – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Lower falls

Below the Falls
Below the Falls

The best hamburger I ever had before Cody was from the old Chuckwagon on Broadway in Houston’s east side where you stood outside to order and eat. Big guys dressed in splattered white aprons would make you a “wheel” if you were real hungry, or a “hub” if you were merely hungry, or a “spoke” if you wanted a hot dog for some reason. No fries, just chips, and it was plenty with huge black sesame seed buns and black pepper slung on the frying patties just right, heavy and with authority. Afterwards, Greg and I would jump on our Schwinns and belch basso all the way to the underpass. Sadly, the Chuckwagon is long gone and so is the one and only Greg Caraway, best friend a lucky kid ever had. 

Grizzly at a Very Safe Distance
Distant Grizzley

 

Black Bear At A Less Safe Distance

 

We only had a day to drive north up Yellowstone’s eastern side and loved every second of it. Unforgettable. But it wasn’t over yet. Both Rocky and Sally pointed out one of America’s most famous drives, the Beartooth Highway, and  it’s hard to believe that I’d never heard of it. For a driver guy like me, that has to rank as unfathomable ignorance, a black mark on my life record.  Fortunately, we took the road– better late than never.

Beartooth Mountains
Beartooth Mountains

When you leave a place like Yellowstone, you naturally expect a descent from a high state of beauty to a lower one, but that’s not what happens if you drive the Beartooth to Red Lodge, MT. Nope. It just gets more and more incredible until you want to bang your head against the wheel to make it stop. Seriously, it’s much too good to pass it by, and you shouldn’t. It’s not that far away, not like Patagonia or El Paso.

From the Top of Beartooth Pass
Beartooth Pass

Like Cody at the other end, Red Lodge is packed in season with portly geezers like us lumbering around in pickups and Tahoes and trim young couples zipping by in Outbacks, CRV’s and RAV4s. The town looks like what it is, a prosperous tourist destination with a plethora of good restaurants, designer shops and lots of no vacancy signs.

Tailing a Couple of Indian Flyers Down the Pass
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Sally Reid, close friend, author and high school girlfriend deluxe, recommended one restaurant in particular, the Carbon County Steakhouse. Aside from the fact that her daughter-in-law manages the place and her firefighter son, Ryan, helps out there too, it’s reputed to be tops in Red Lodge. Unfortunately, the day had no room for the CCS or any other restaurant. We were dead tired, more road weary than hungry and our “room” settled the question of why bother to even eat at all.

Descending the Beartooth
Descending the Beartooths

Dahna booked the room at the two storey, dog friendly motel months earlier. Since Sacha hates stairs and new places generally, Dahna reserved a downstairs room in case I had to carry her in. Down is easier than up in this universe. But “down” at this place was in a deep basement with a dark entrance leading to a landing, then down again—an intimidating eight mismatched steps that terrified Sacha and scared me too. Up would have been a lot easier as it turned out.

Where the Antelope Play…
Where the Antelope Play

 Normally, Sacha doesn’t mind when I have to pick her up with her supportive “lifting harness” and carry her 55 pounds into a new room or hallway. This time she squealed through the whole descent, and I whined in empathy, partly for her. But the cherry on top of the whole thing came when we opened the door to our room and the fetid air of a thousand dungeons hit us like a hard right cross smack in the old schnozzola (Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are).

Dahna said, “It’s a little musty in here.”

I said, “It stinks.”

She said, “A little doggie.”

I said, “Stinks.”

She said, “Okay, a lot doggie.”

I said, “A lot doggie where they all died three weeks ago.”

She: “So? What do you want me to about it? The whole frickin’ town’s booked.”

Me: “Call the desk and get ‘em to bring some air freshener or something.”

She: “You call them!”

Me: “With what phone?”

“No phone?? Christ on a cracker!” (* her Catholic upbringing)

“Use the cell.”

“Still in the truck.”

“Well, I ain’t going up there.”

“Then shut up.”

The volley gave Sacha that doleful look of misery only dogs can muster, and we both laughed when we saw it. We gave her kisses and hugs and that made us both feel better. All three of us were beat and not up for anything. We weren’t hungry, happy or sad, just done. Using her acute powers, Dahna observed that we both could miss a meal, suggested a stiff drink instead and it was so ordered. Then another. Soon after, we collapsed on the bed and stayed there in surrender watching TV and reading a little. The miasma of the place settled over us, saturating our disposition and our clothes and, befittingly, paralleled the news of the day. We might have slept. Can’t remember.

It dawned on Dahna that places that take dogs aren’t necessarily the Ritz, and, in fact, couldn’t be if they wanted. She thought we should be glad so many were available to us on the way. I concurred with the caveat that basements were out in the future. I never understood the basement concept anyway. I consider good luck and overbuilt houses to be the best defense against tornadoes, and who wants to carry a pool table down a flight of stairs anyway? I don’t know how our house smells to other people, probably not great, but I don’t think about it much since our friends are all dog nuts and likely don’t care.

We agree that Yellowstone deserves its ranking as a terminal destination for us in the foreseeable future, maybe two years from now. Aside from the pleasures more YS will give, we’ll have more visits with Linda, Rocky and Elaine, and maybe give the Carbon County Steakhouse a chance to soak us for a couple of its renowned steaks. We left the “motel” with an Obama-esque shoulder flick, complete with Dubya smirk, and it was off to Helena to see Linda and a much better evening, that’s for sure.

Bison Babies Enjoying the Sunshine
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Our night in Helena was our last before picking up the RV in Missoula. The room that night was the nicest by far, and the reunion with Linda made it even better. She came down to Comanche to visit a couple of years ago not feeling her best to put it mildly. A couple of years before that she trudged through the snow to her barn intending to feed her horses when a stacked hay bale fell down breaking her leg in a terrible compound fracture. Just try to imagine making the long crawl back to the house like Wyeth’s Christina, but in agony, dragging a broken leg through the snow in a Montana winter and living to tell about it.

The operations and medications took a heavy toll and ended a lifetime of competitive and pleasure riding that stretched from her girlhood in Houston to heading Montana’s racing commission and beyond. She found good homes for her horses and began the process of reordering her life, now on a new, unexpected and unwelcome path. I suppose most people go through this process as they grow older, but not so suddenly.

We were, therefore, thrilled to find the Woman of Horses we’ve known for 50 years, that pretty Scandinavian hippie chick with the quick laugh and bright eyes, back with us and sparkling once again. She took us to a snappy bar and grill where we sat on stools at a high table and ordered big gooey sandwiches. Linda had a good reuben and tried a local brew, while Dahna and I split two French dips, one heavy with bacon, one thankfully without. Wonderful.

Defying Gravity
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Afterward, she drove us around town in her trusty Subaru, and I asked her to take us by the old house she used to own with her partner, Dave. Forty-three years ago Dahna and I hitchhiked from our old farm in SE Utah to Helena to visit them there, and I wanted to see if my memory matched up with reality. It did some but only a little. The house looked great, remodeled like the rest on the street, and I recognized some aspects of it but others slipped in memory.

We stayed with them for a couple of days listening to good music through giant speakers, played a game of Hearts with an unhappy Dave partnered with a flustered Dahna, new to the game, and watched a sudden hail storm beat the living crap out of their garden. Linda remembered that and beamed, “You know that little garden came back, big time!” I just shook my head, “Unbelievable.” The storm had pounded it flat right before our eyes. Brutal. Back at the room we laughed and reminisced about the good times and bad, all those years, and talked of our plans for the future. We kissed her goodnight as she left, read a little and drifted off to sleep, pleased and on a good bed.

We’ve enjoyed the beautiful ride coming into Missoula from the east several times. The mountains and valleys always keep our mood good, and this time we were happy as clams just by the thought of retrieving our comfy camper, truly our second home, from storage in nearby Florence. We called ahead and met Elaine at their nifty house near Clinton, tucked in its own picturesque mountain valley. We stopped to pick up a couple of items we shipped ahead to their address. One was an electric mattress pad we bought online from Target to replace the old electric blanket that didn’t fit and always tripped us in the dark with its loops of wires hanging out like snares.

These devices really save propane when you’re traveling in cold climes like we do sometimes. RVs are heated with costly propane you buy wherever, but the electric costs are built into the flat price of the site rental. It’s okay if the cabin temperature drops a lot through the night as long as your bed is toasty, and your husky whatever mix won’t mind a bit. It’s a kick to get goosed by a cold nose when she bellies in to snuggle between us on frigid mornings. Three happy peas in a pod, snug as a bug in a rug, the middle one with urgency issues and a whappy tail.

About six hours after leaving Elaine we had the trailer set up in our site and running, the new electric mattress pad lying in wait under the clean sheets and bedspread. We got to the Sehnerts’ about 7:00 PM for dinner of Rocky’s special soup, crusty bread and wine—very European, very good. Sacha loves their place and that night overcame her fear of the hardwood kitchen/dining floor. After timidly walking out on it from the safety of the living room carpet and not falling into the abyss, she had free run of the house and deck. Everything but the back rooms where the cats lurked in ambush.

Sawsepal Pentsemon (Penstemon glaber)
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On the third day in Missoula, Dahna awoke to hives on her arms and stomach and in her ears. She went straight for the Benadryl, popping a pill and slathering the gel all over. The hives went away. The next morning they were back just as bad. More Benadryl. We stripped the bed and removed the new mattress pad and repackaged it and then washed the sheets. The morning after that…no hives. Dahna, being a scientist, studied the data set and concluded, “This damn thing is going back to Target and I’d better get my money back.” She did.

The wonderful thing about doing business with a leviathan like Target is that the clerks are always on your side, at least when their managers aren’t snooping around.

I needed to get my truck serviced so Rocky met me at the Chevy house in his truck. The plan was to fool around in town while they worked on it. I showed him my back left tire that only had about 1/8” of tread left compared to the three others that looked okay with about twice that much. I thought maybe I should buy a new tire, but Rocky told me something I didn’t know about tires and four wheel drive vehicles. He said the tires on these vehicles had to be the same size because of the way their differentials work. He said, “I doubt they’ll sell you a single tire because the difference in size puts too much stress on the rear end.”

Sure enough, the Chevy house wanted me to sign a waiver holding them harmless if I went with a single tire. They recommended a full set. Rocky just grinned and shrugged with his arms crossed. The paranoia lobe in my brain screamed, ‘Tire Scam! Tire Scam!’ So, I showed them and ordered a single tire. Rocky just shook his head. The tire wasn’t in stock and had to be ordered and that gave the nellie nervosa lobe in my brain time to freak out. What if my differential exploded in some God forsaken place like Canada where they all speak French gibberish and I can’t find my passport and…and…and so on. So, I cancelled the one tire and ordered a whole set.

You’re probably wondering why the hell I’m buying tires from GM, and I don’t really have an answer for that. Especially when they decided to hit me with a $45.00/tire overcharge for the terrible burden of having to load them on the truck in Butte. Look, I enjoy wasting money as much as the next guy, even more sometimes, but that day I just wasn’t sympathetic to their plight. I cancelled the whole thing.

In the meantime, Rocky had researched his subscription to Consumer Reports and gave me a comprehensive breakdown of their top picks, complete with sub ratings. He also gave me the names of several local tire shops he trusted. Dahna and I shifted into high gear and went out for bid on the cell. We got a good deal on a set of Michelin All Season LT 265/17s with a 121 load rating, an E load range 10 ply and an R speed rating that’ll let me run on these babies all day at 106 MPH, no sweat. And I’m happy. Happy but broke. Of course, now I’m worried about the trailer’s tires but, thankfully, I can’t afford them.

Angling for Cutthroat Trout
Angling for the Cutthroat

We had a great time with Rocky and Elaine, good food and talk, and we left Missoula a little wistfully headed north for Kalispell and Glacier National Park. We wondered when we’d see our old Montana friends again, geography being what it is. But if this trip has proven just one thing, it’s like Jim Morrison said, “The west is the best.” The scale of it, the beauty, draws you back again and again, so it might not be too long before we come back.

Right now, it’s the late afternoon on the last full day of our seven days in in the midst of Canada’s biggest pearl, Banff National Park. Adjoined by four other incredible parks, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier and Kootenay, there are no words to describe what your eyes cannot believe. That’s why I’ll let Dahna tell you all about it. Incredible photos come with and even a few short videos you’ll love. Stay tuned.