Tag Archives: national parks

WRT III, Part 2: The Park of Parks

2 Aug

The object of my road trip this year is Yellowstone National Park, and along with Uncle Bob, cousin Rob, cousin Alex, and family friend Amy, we’re set to eat up as much of it as we can in a week. Yellowstone was the world’s first national park, formed in 1872 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. That age is obvious at Fort Yellowstone in Mammoth Springs, the first settlement beyond the iconic Roosevelt Arch gateway in Gardiner, Montana: it still looks like the army installation it was when the cavalry defended the park’s borders in the days before the National Park Service. Its stately buildings stand in tribute to General Philip Sheridan, one of those complicated figures of American history who was a central figure in smashing the Confederacy and in the preservation of Yellowstone who also oversaw the systematic destruction of Native American independence in the West.

Yellowstone’s age allows a visitor to see the changing beliefs in conservation since the first wagon parties of tourists made their way west and the army enforced its borders by the barrel of the gun. A generation later, Yellowstone’s guardians threw up massive lodges beside some of its largest attractions, with stately hotels looming over Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake to house the adventurers who came by train. By the 1950s, the Park Service realized that, no matter how tasteful, putting these behemoths on top of attractions wasn’t the brightest idea, and built out its road network to reflect the automobile era. The new Canyon Village is set tastefully back from the canyon but is a relic of that era’s architecture, at once fascinating and rather ugly. Sweeping wildfires in the late 80s prompted more rebuilds, along with new theories of forest management and recognition that humans can only manage so much.

At times, Yellowstone feels like a commercial for the entire National Park system. One short hike along the Yellowstone River evokes the depths of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, a waterfall higher than Niagara Falls, the hoodoos of Bryce, and the red and green cliffs of Zion, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The Upper Geyser Basin alone, which is one of many geyser basins in the park, is home to over half of the world’s active geysers; to the east, the Hayden Valley is the epicenter of the largest big game preserve in the lower 48 states. If that isn’t enough, the park sits atop one of the two largest supervolcanoes in the world, a pulsing magma chamber at the heart of North America that could just kill us all if it ever decides to blow its top. This park is a natural wonder on a scale few others can match, and while many parks can outdo it in some aspects, none can outdo it in all.

The park is often crowded, though a ranger at Old Faithful tells Bob and Amy numbers are way down, a trend likely spurred by a complete lack of international travelers due to Covid-19. Not only are foreigners often legion in national parks, they also tend to be more intrepid than Americans and venture beyond main attractions. Even as a massive parking lot next to Old Faithful fills and the crowds spread their way along the Grand Canyon and wildlife-induced traffic jams clog its roads, we never feel great unease, and a few steps into the woods usually does away with the crowds. On the middle two days of the backpacking trip we encounter all of three other hiking parties, and there are far more remote corners of the Yellowstone backcountry than the part we visit on this trip. Solitude is available if one knows where to look, and this crew has some experience on that front.

Our destination for the first three nights in the park is the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone, a hike that will take us down the river’s lesser-known but still stunning canyon in the park. Our road into Yellowstone takes us up the Paradise Valley, which heads from I-94 in Livingston to the park’s northern gate in Gardiner, where the trail will dump us at the end. We leave my car at a campground on a steep peak above Gardiner and caravan with the other two to the Hellroaring trailhead along a ridge overlooking the Yellowstone. Both the road and the first stages of the hike take us through a dozen microclimates: river canyon, alpine meadow, boreal forest, barren plateau, seasonal ponds. We dodge the deer, holster up our bear spray, and immediately work our way down to a solid suspension bridge over the river.

Hiking with this crew has little in common with my solitary forays along the Superior Hiking Trail. When I go by myself, it’s a spare operation built for speed, an intense pace with few breaks, my movements machine-like to a fault. Here, we hike at a sustainable pace, and the steady chatter keeps us going. Rob, a Bay Area engineer, educates us on the intricacies of digital imaging; Alex, fresh off a weekend of sunburn in Door County, Wisconsin and afflicted by allergies, bears the brunt of most of the trip’s indignities. (The collections of tissues and flaking skin in the tent we share are a sight to behold.) Bob, who has the organization of these trips down to an art, offers his endorsements of some of our new gear, while Amy provides the necessary morale boosts. We follow deliberate packing and repacking processes and stop to gain intel from backpackers heading the other direction, who warn of a recent grizzly attack up Hellroaring Creek and a black bear running through their camp. We pass through pine forests and open sagebrush meadows, scan these expanses for big game but come up empty.

We come to the ford over Hellroaring Creek, which is wide, icy, and has a current that shows how it got its name. There’s a bridge a couple miles upstream, but a party we’d met at the suspension bridge say the trail to it grows hard to follow. After some scouting, we decide the way straight across is as good as any and pick our way through the rushing creek. The trail is harder to pick up on the opposite bank, and a lone bison down by the creek also forces a detour, but in time we find a halfhearted trail down the Hellroaring to its confluence with the Yellowstone, where we camp the first night. It is a stunning setting. The Hellroaring pours down its cataracts to the end, but the Yellowstone rushes even faster, and Amy uses her experience from her whitewater days to scout out lines through the rapids. We set up camp, with the tents up on a ridge away from our kitchen area just above the river, and we dip our feet in a pool off the creek. Over a bourbon happy hour and a freeze-dried dinner we solve most of the world’s problems before a mosquito attack leads us to beat an early retreat to our tents, stuck up awake for a few hours until it cools enough to put on the warm clothing we’ll need for the lower late night temperatures at this elevation.

We get a slow start on day two. I’m the first one up and take a moment for myself at the confluence of the river and the creek, and when we set out I set the pace across the open meadow. The trail is a mere suggestion here, a bison poop obstacle course where each step scatters a few dozen grasshoppers. We pick up the main trail and head up into a grassland where we are immediately assaulted by biting flies and mosquitoes. We go quiet and don’t linger, pushing up and up into a piney park as we dodge the impassable cliffs along the riverbank here. We catch glimpses of the Yellowstone below and start our way down, though the miserable bugs render any pauses along the picturesque creeks impossible.

By the standards of this party this hike was a perfectly reasonable one, but between the heat and the nonstop sun, we are all drained by the time we reach our campsite on the banks of the river. Bob reclines in the shade, while Alex passes out in the hammock; Amy and Rob take dips in the river, moving cautiously when water snakes appear. (Later, we learn they are harmless garter snakes.) My back is grumpy, but I catch up on my notes and this night too resolves itself in food and drink and a hasty retreat to the tents, where Alex and I play chess to wait out the bugs.

The third morning is leisurely, and Amy and I are up first and enjoy teas before the others wake. We take a side trip to see a second suspension bridge over the river at Blacktail Deer Creek and, after nothing but rip-roaring water over the past two days, marvel at the stillness of lonely Crevice Lake. From there, we admire the crashing falls of Crevice Creek and push up and around Knowles Falls, meeting a few fishermen along the switchbacks. For a second straight day we’ve underestimated the distance to our campsite, and fear we’ll have to climb another ridge before our site appears by surprise. It’s a small site, its tent pads tucked amid the grass along the riverbank, and it mercifully becomes cloudy not too long after we arrive, which keeps the site bearable in the midafternoon heat. After Alex reloads my water, I drift away in my own hammock session. Happy hour comes atop a small ridge with a view of rapids below, and we’ve saved three of the best freeze-dried delicacies for tonight. Finally, the bugs are minimal, and we can sit out and chat away through the evening before we fall asleep to the sound of the thundering rapids.

On day four we wake at a reasonable hour for once, but still leave camp later than planned after conversation over breakfast carries on. It’s a grey day, which makes for easier hiking; a few drops fall here and there, but the heavens never open up. After climbing the ridge we’d dreaded the day before, the trail meanders down a boulder field and into the deepest reaches of the Black Canyon, its rocks made more properly foreboding by the darkness. The Yellowstone pours through these granite halls, and the impressively engineered path presents a few rattlesnakes to liven things up. We straddle the park boundary and start seeing people again: first a stock party, then a dad with two religiously mask-wearing young daughters, and finally some random dude wandering the hill chattering on his phone. Lunch comes beneath a tree near the banks of Bear Creek, where the canyon opens up to views of the mountains surrounding Gardiner.

We conclude our hike with our last and greatest upward push. I set an aggressive pace up the early stages but am overruled on the route and settle back into the pack as we push up switchback after switchback in the suddenly re-emergent sun. Finally, we come to my car, which sits alone, baking in the parking lot. We pack it like a clown car and I let it roll back down into Gardiner, trying not to burn up too much of the brakes. Bob and Alex check into a hotel while Amy, Rob, and I retrieve the other vehicles, an affair slowed by a traffic jam induced by a black bear sighting.

We spend the night in Gardiner, a town dropped on a spare plain along the Yellowstone that exists slowly to lodge and equip national park visitors. Our abode for the night has an excess of dead animals in the lobby, and any enjoyment of indoor plumbing is fleeting: the toilet in the room that Alex and I share clogs, and with no 24-hour service at the desk, we settle for making the trek to a bathroom off the lobby. Still, it’s an upgrade over digging a hole with a trowel. We sneak in a dinner of bison and elk before a downpour, and Gardiner’s lone liquor store has a surprisingly good bourbon stash. We retreat to the hotel and catch some of an improbable opening day of baseball, a fleeting hint of normalcy that delights Rob and me.

On our fifth day, we play the dutiful part of Yellowstone tourists. Our vehicles caravan around the park’s Grand Loop, with a long stop at Old Faithful and its surrounding geyser basin, with vivid orange and blue pools and explosions of steam and a lingering aroma of sulfur. We have lunch along the shores of Yellowstone Lake, which stretches its fingers out toward the mountains beyond; later, we drive up the Hayden Valley, an American safari through open plains dotted with bison and elk. We tour the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near sunset, awed by its towering falls and wide palette of yellows and whites and blacks and reds. We spend the night in the car campground at Canyon Village, Alex and Rob religiously tending a fire beneath the lodgepole pines, Amy’s bourbon bottle on hand to fuel us through the night.

We ask ourselves why we do this, deny ourselves creature comforts to plow through the wilderness, and come up with a few answers: we know how few people will ever see this, know these memories will endure long after most of the rest of 2020 fades away in our minds, admit we may share a masochistic desire to push ourselves and live in a radically different way. In a year where travel itself has become a risky proposition, we managed to embed ourselves in an American wonder, and we plan to keep this tradition going in future years. We’ve written our own little history that will endure.

WRT III, Part 1: The Winning of the West

31 Jul

Can I tell I’m starved for an adventure? I drive so manically out of Duluth on the first day of my trip to Yellowstone that I don’t take so much as a bathroom stop until I reach a rest area in Oriska, North Dakota, some four and a half hours into my drive. The road is monotonous, my mission singular, and I have an audiobook of Joan Didion’s notes on a road trip across the American South to carry me along. Written observation as inspiration for my own notes: I can only dream they will live up to her prescient ability to diagnose American fault lines 50 years ago. Her observations on race and on Southern and Western attitudes are just as relevant today. We are still the children of the late 60s.

I perk up some after I cross the Hundredth Meridian and enter the West: not Didion’s California West, but the West of wide open spaces and enduring frontiers. The flat plains turn into hills that march upward in steady ranks, farm fields give way to grazing pastures, and a few stray buttes dot the landscape here and there. Salem Sue, the towering cow that welcomes visitors to New Salem, offers a formal welcome to this wilder country. I slow my roll when I approach Theodore Roosevelt National Park to drink in the changing landscape, the lands that commanded the loyalty of Native Americans, the fed the dreams of American settlers, and create an outlet for modern-day thrill-seekers. This trip is a deep plunge into the West, in all its complicated history.

I first set eyes on Theodore Roosevelt four years ago, when a friend and I pulled into its Painted Canyon Overlook on the tail end of a grand western road trip. That glimpse left me hungry for more, and this trip has given me the excuse I need to spend two nights deep in its harsh but detail-rich hills. These badlands along the Little Missouri River enraptured a young future president in the 1880s, and after several untimely deaths in his life, he came back here to find freedom. On this first leg of my western road trip, I follow in his footsteps.

There are a few different categories of national park. The first captures features that are true natural wonders of the world by any standard: the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion, Yellowstone. A second category is more of a glorified state park: sure, they can be lovely, but there isn’t always much to distinguish them from their surroundings, and they may be the products of political patronage. Voyageurs National Park, the closest to my northern Minnesota home, falls in this category; there’s not much to distinguish it from the neighboring, more remote Boundary Waters. I’ve heard similar sentiments for places like the Cuyahoga Valley or Virgin Islands National Parks. This isn’t to say they aren’t fun to visit, but no one will pretend they belong in a category alongside Glacier or the Great Smoky Mountains.

Theodore Roosevelt, however, occupies a third category, along with places like Joshua Tree and Isle Royale and a lot of Alaska: they preserve unique, lonely wildernesses. They have little in the way of famed attractions, and instead invite their visitors to simply wander in and explore. Camping in the time of Covid only heightens this raw, wild feel: the Cottonwood Campground, where I’d made reservations months ago, is closed, but the backcountry is open, so I adapt easily enough. I arrange for a permit, park in a small lot next to a deep, nearly dry wash named Jones Creek, and start to hike the requisite distance away from all features for a backcountry camp. Just a short ways in, I have to divert up a hill to avoid a bison that lounges a bit too close to the path for comfort, but after dodging it, I see a faint path running up a small valley across the creek that I decide will serve my purposes.

Crossing the steep-banked gully of Jones Creek poses a challenge, but eventually I find a crumbling path that guides me down along its fetid pools for a spell before it offers a pathway up into the valley I’ve claimed. I stake my tent in a meadow just beyond view from the wider Jones Creek valley and find a perfect hammock spot in a copse of trees. I bliss out there until my campsite comes into the shade of the neighboring hills, make my dinner, and later rock-hop up a craggy slope to enjoy the sunset down Jones Creek with my nightcap. My bison friend has ambled along the opposite bank of the creek and nibbles about here and there. A collection of coyotes howls at sunset, the birds chirp away into the dusk, and the lowing of the bison comes at the steady pace of a loud snorer. When darkness falls, though, the sounds die away, and when I wake in the wee hours of the night, I hear nothing but silence: pure, pristine silence for the longest stretch of time I have ever heard.

I have a long day hike planned for my full day here, but I wake to rain in the morning and issue a few profanities to an audience of zero. I sit confined in my tent for two hours longer than I’d hoped, and I’m restless, a slight agoraphobia rising up; once the clouds clear, I am resigned to hiking in the heat of the day. Theodore Roosevelt’s trails are notorious for turning to slop when wet, and my only choice is to mudsurf down the slope into the Jones Creek ravine to get back to the trail, though the climb back up on the other side is mercifully easy. The bison is gone now, and I head back up the trail and cross the road on to a flat along the Little Missouri River. The trail meanders through an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and after further mudsurfing, I reach a ford across the river by the horse paddocks of the Peaceful Valley Ranch. The Little Missouri is wide but shallow, and the water never clears my knees as I ford it. I don’t mind the water on my feet to cool them down. Soon I come to a meadow occupied by a man and his two daughters; at first I think the girls are the sources of the high-pitched chirps, but soon I realize they’re coming from the crew of prairie dogs. What silly creatures, I think as I watch them popping up here and there, chirping manically at any human who comes close.

The trail meanders up and down washes, past small springs tapped by early settlers, and twists up valleys that nest their way in amid the badlands. It’s a warm day with few clouds, but a strong wind blasts across the park and keeps the hiking pleasant. After some initial crowds, I find myself alone on the Lone Tree Trail, my only fellow traveler a black mustang on a distant hill. The trail follows Knutson Creek up into the highlands as it twists through occasional juniper thickets, knifes up a mud bank, and gradually ramps up to the plateau atop the badlands. Up on this high plain the grassland extends off into eternity, a stunningly open world where the trail is faint and a lone bison grazes in the distance. I work my way back along the edge of the plateau to views down valleys and across a prairie dog metropolis. The midday sun has dried out all of the morning mud, and I plunge back down and complete my 13-mile circuit. I repeat my evening ritual of the day before, amuse myself by naming the hills around the valley I’ve claimed as my own: the Ziggurat, the Slipper, the Parapet, the Monitor and the Merrimack. (I suppose we may need to rename that last one now.) For a second night, an early morning fitful waking gifts nothing but silence. This is exactly how to experience the wilderness.

I rise early the next morning, pack my things, and start on my way across Montana to Bozeman, where I will rendezvous with my fellow Yellowstone hikers. This is the same group I joined on the Lost Coast in California last summer, minus two participants and plus another cousin of mine who missed that jaunt. The drive passes quickly, and before long we’re on a hectic rush around outdoors stores, understocked in the Covid era, and go through our routine of divvying up the load for the hike among our packs.

Bozeman is so close and so far from my hometown of Duluth. It’s an outdoorsy wilderness gateway and a college town, big enough to be a regional center with plenty of amenities but small enough to remain intimate. The similarities end there, though: while Duluth drowns in history, Bozeman has basically none outside of a few blocks along its tasteful Main Street. Most of the city is a sprawling suburban grid, with endless rows of cheap, unremarkable new apartments stretching off into the distance, ready to accommodate its exploding population of young adventure-seekers. In a way, I’m fond of that ethos; it feels fresh, has none of the post-industrial fatalism that sometimes grips Duluth. If Duluth is the Rust Belt reinvention story that struggles to hide its scars, Bozeman is the archetype of the West: a city that can pretend it has no history, the eternal belief in outward escape and a new life on the frontier more than a century after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed.

I’d hardly be the first person to critique the myth of the West: brave cowboys, romanticized bandits, people free to be themselves away from old world wars or Eastern industry and hierarchy. But one can admire their rugged pursuits and still see everything that this picture leaves out: the broken dreams of so many would-be settlers, the decimation of the natives, the bloodletting and anarchy that would now inspire some people to call for the National Guard. The United States is still on the run from its past, still thinks it can start anew somewhere out here in these hills and wastes, and while on the most fundamental level it will always be wrong about that, it can still work its magic. Why else would I be here?

Western Road Trip 2.0

27 Apr

Despite some deceptively warm weather of late, it is still spring in Duluth. Oil refineries in Superior are on fire. Yeah, I’m about ready for an escape.

Two summers ago, I took a road trip across the West, and it planted something of a bug. It taught me that I enjoy long-distance driving, and that I have a lot of national parks I need to see. It tempted me to return to San Francisco before long, and also left me wanting a little more ocean and desert in my life. So, over the course of a week, I plan to check all of those boxes.

The first few days, will feature the usual fun of living well and consuming tasty beverages in the Bay Area. I’ll be blessedly car-free there after a debacle on the last road trip, and will collect a rental car after two nights in the gentrification capital of America. My next night is in a cottage down the coast in Pacific Grove, where I’ll fill my surf and Steinbeck quotas, meander down to Big Sur, and stock up on provisions.

Over the next phase of my journey, I will travel armed with an America the Beautiful pass, which will get me into four national parks over the course of the trip. The first is Pinnacles, which I didn’t know existed until I started researching routes from the California coast to the Sierras, but will offer some good, robust training hikes for what comes later. Next comes Sequoia, where I will spend a night in the foothills and make an all-too-brief visit to some big trees. After that, I’ll spend two nights at Joshua Tree, deep in the desert and beneath one of America’s clearest starry skies. It will all culminate with a conquest of vertigo (or so I hope) at Angel’s Landing, along with other adventures through Zion National Park in Utah.

The natural wonders may be the main highlights of this trip, but there should be some good sociological fun, too. The Bay Area, of course, is a fascinating mash-up of lefty radicalism and Silicon Valley technocracy. To the south, I’ll brush up against New Agers and coastal opulence, from Esalen to Pebble Beach. I’ll spend some time in California’s Central Valley, a relatively poor agricultural heartland where immigrant laborers cut their teeth. Later, I’ll see desert frontier towns and Mormon outposts. To wrap things up, I’ll swing through that monument to American kitsch, Las Vegas, on my way to catch a flight home. Nearly all of my driving will be on state and federal highways, which I much prefer to freeways: they provide a much more intimate window into the communities one passes through.

As always, planning the trip is half the journey, and deciding what I had to leave out was a chore. Yosemite and Kings Canyon will require return trips when I can immerse myself in them, and part of me wants to wander back to San Luis Obispo and its environs, the site of a high school adventure that deserves its own blog post at some point in the future. I could easily devote a full week to meandering up and down the California coast, or trudging through the Sierras, or basking in the desert, but settled for packing in all three.

My itinerary is full, and the range of geography along the route made it difficult to plan. There are no campground reservations high in the Sierras yet this time of year, as snow and cold remains a risk; Joshua Tree, meanwhile, is only a few weeks away from the summer heat that makes it unbearable. And while this trip will involve old friends and relatives on the two ends, the midweek portion will be a personal retreat of sorts, as I set up camp and run up mountains on my own. My partners in travel will include Jack Kerouac (Big Sur), Joan Didion (Blue Nights), Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety), and Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire). As usual, I’m seeking out a little of everything amid my cycles from one extreme to another.

This is an ambitious trip in one other respect, too: I’m leaving my laptop at home. This may seem a minor decision for most travelers, especially in a day in age when cell phones allow us to do most of the same things that computers do. But for me, a week without a word processor is like a week without water.  The lack of a computer doesn’t mean I won’t be writing on my way, or blog extensively about it when I return. I just felt compelled to leave it behind and live without my daily dose of screen time. (That battery would have run down to nothing across five straight nights in a tent anyway.) And while the phone will be along so I can properly Instagram my adventures to death, I am also rather pleased that most of my campgrounds will likely be in lands where I can’t count on having any service. Sometimes one just needs to cut the cord and use some good, old-fashioned notebooks.

This is a very timely trip, and not just for the sake of some new weather. It comes as my work life heads into a transitional phase, and it will be healthy for me to attain some distance to understand my role. With any luck, it will jolt some closing thoughts for my current fictional project, and give me some idea of what I will tackle next. And, as always, this step out from my day-to-day life in Duluth will provide necessary perspective on matters large and small.

So, off I go. I look forward to aggressive hikes, camp stove meals, campground acquaintances, and nights under the stars. To beaches, to mountains, to canyons, to deserts. I will try not to hang out in a high-rise in San Francisco, get lost in Joshua Tree, or fall off of Angel’s Landing. I will put some miles on a rental vehicle and on my hiking boots, and go conquer the West once again. I’ll be back here to tell the tale when I return.