The Big Update

I’ve been promising some of you an email update on my trip for some time now. Because I’ve finally reached my parent’s house in Palm City, FL and have caught my journal up to current events, I’m now ready to spill the beans.

My original plan called for leaving Seattle at 9 am on Saturday, 29 June. Ha! plans. I need to learn to relax more and not be so rigidly tied to my plans. I didn’t manage to leave Seattle until just after noon. My first stop was the Mailboxes, Etc store: there was simply too much stuff in my poor little Miata. This was last minute stuff that I just couldn’t throw away but needed until the very last moment – e.g. the cordless drill and some clothes. Eighty-three dollars later, fifty-eight pounds of excess gear was on its way to my parents in Florida.

To keep on schedule, I needed to reach Winchester, ID by the end of the day. Rather than heading south of Mt. Ranier to Rt 12 and taking that east, I decided to make up some time by following the Interstates east to the Tri-cities area. After escaping the Tri-cities with no more than a headache, I left the Interstate in favour of some of the tiny roads.

While on Hwy 124, I stopped for an apple in a tiny town named Waitsburg, WA. There I met a beefy, dumb-looking kid, who was standing around the grocery carrying a pizza box. My guess is he starts the day with his own pizza and carries it around just in case he starts feeling peckish between meals. As I hopped back into my little car, he asked me whether I had a “System” in my car. Most of you know just how out of touch I am with the trend of modern thought; so, you won’t be the slightest bit surprised that this question baffled me. The beefy kid was kind enough to explain: a “system” is a loud stereo. I could tell immediately that this would indeed be a journey of enlightenment.

Ultimately, just after the sun set into the wilds of Idaho, I pulled into the Idaho State Park at Winchester. There I met some campers from Lewiston, ID & Clarkston, WA. They very kindly offered me a seat by the fire and (more importantly) a cold beer. While their collection of children ran around causing trouble, we sat around the fire swapping stories. By the time I went to bed, the tension and aggravation of my last few days had completely left me.

My first stop after leaving Winchester, ID was in the teaming metropolis of Whitebird, which lies at the bottom of 10 miles of a 7% grade. To economise, I kicked the Miata out of gear and coasted down the hill – at times reaching speeds of 85 mph before hitting the brakes. Finally, at the bottom of the hill, a little sign advertising Whitebird, ID pointed down under the bridge I’d just crossed. Although I suspected the town to be inhabited by trolls (who else lives under a bridge), breakfast beckoned.

Instead of trolls, I found the natives sitting around on the porches of buildings which might have been first constructed for a John Wayne western. Of course they were drinking beer. After all, it was already 9 o'clock. As I recall the town had two saloons, one grocery, a feed and seed store, and a post office. Oh, and one stop sign: leaning discretely against the side of one of the saloons along with some other scrap wood. I guess it hadn’t improved traffic much.

Whitebirders eat well – you need something to soak up all the beer. For the princely sum of $5.20 I had breakfast. Not your bowl of cereal, toast and orange juice. Here’s how to build a Whitebird breakfast: Take a large round plate and cover it with hashbrowns piled about two inches deep at the center. Onto this base lay two scrambled jumbo eggs, say from an ostrich, a slab of ham nearly a quarter of an inch thick and easily five inches in diameter. Because you don’t want to go away hungry, add two slices of toast. By eating slowly and stuffing myself, I was able to each almost a third of it all. Not bad.

My destination for the evening was Stanley, ID – population 100 in the summer. Route 21 took me out of Boise (for which I was tempted to offer a prayer of thanks) and wound along the edge of several rivers, sometimes at the edge of a steep cliff and at other times at the base of the same steep cliffs. Finally, once I broke through the surrounding mountains, I was greeted by meadows of tall, blue flowering plants behind old crossed-log fences. The Sawtooth mountains formed a scenic backdrop for historic downtown Stanley.

Most of the 100 people in Stanley work in the service industry and almost all of them are entirely seasonal. My waitress at the local Pizza joint lives in Riggins, ID (which I passed through earlier in the day) and had just the other day arrived for the summer season. The year-round population of Stanley is close to a dozen people, either incredibly hardy or foolish. The entire area is cut off from “civilisation” during the winter.

There really isn’t much in central and eastern Idaho. The area is arid and incredibly dull. The occasional green sage brush breaks the monotony of the rolling brown hills. As I passed the volcanic “Craters of the Moon” National Monument, I was surprised at what an improvement the bleak moon-scape was over the regular landscape.

I arrived at the Grand Tetons National Park visitor center on Monday, 1 July around 1:30 pm. After chatting with one of the Rangers, I entered the park and secured a camp site at Colter Bay. While I had a late lunch in the Colter Bay restaurant, a young buck grazed around just outside. This isn’t normal deer behaviour: people walked around no more than twenty feet away. At one point a bicyclist zoomed by; but nothing disturbed this buck. He was there long enough for me to get bored.

After lunch, I went on a short hike to identify good locations for photography the next morning. The Colter Bay area affords a good view of the mountains, although it may not be as scenic as some other locations because a large stand of evergreens blocks some of the better views. At one point during the hike, I sat down on a driftwood log to contemplate the scenery. Only then did it occur to me that if this was work, I didn’t mind working so much. While no one pays me money for my photographs yet, I can definitely understand why this mode of employment is desirable.

Have you ever tried to get up at 5 am in the mountains? It’s cold. No. Colder than that. Sunrise was at 5:15 am and I got up in time to capture the early morning light on the mountains. Even after putting on my thermal underwear and several layers of insulation, I was still cold as I hiked out to the first of the locations I’d selected the night before. My reward for enduring the cold air was the warm light peeking over the mountains to the east and illuminating the Tetons. I encountered a few joggers (freaks) and one other photographer; but no one was willing to shatter the early morning quiet.

After taking a few photographs of the Tetons enjoying sunrise, I dashed back to my camp site to change clothes for a ranger-led hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. My experience freezing earlier that morning fooled me into wearing long pants and my fleece jacket – the wrong decision for the afternoon’s heat. Photographic subjects were everywhere; but so late in the day (9 am to 2 pm) the light is really too harsh. When I return to the Tetons (and I must) I’ll be certain to make this an early morning hike.

Fortunately, my knee was equal to the hike. We gained over 400 feet in less than a half mile – not much to those of you who hike all the time; but, more than I routinely encountered in my previous career. I enjoyed chatting with the Ranger who led our group, Barbara Hoppe. After she asked me why I wasn’t taking pictures, despite lugging around eight pounds of gear, I explained that after my small adventure last year I prefer to take my time making pictures rather than grabbing a quick one while the group waits. I returned to each vantage point once the hike had ended (at Inspiration Point) and did my best to capture the grandeur of Cascade Creek, Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, and the charm of ground squirrels and marmots.

The next morning found me taking more sunrise photographs of the Tetons but from a different vantage point. I then hopped back in the Miata and zoomed off to Denver where my first act upon arriving at my sister’s apartment was to demand a shower. The Grand Tetons don’t offer showers other than those run by the concessionaire at $3 per shower. I’ve nothing really nice to say about the quality of the facilities offered to campers at the Tetons. Whether budget cuts or policy decisions are to blame, I think having showers and functional sinks would be a minimum. Neither has to offer hot water; but simply having them is essential.

The morning of 4 July, Dianne and I drove up to see Buffalo Bill’s grave. He was quite an interesting fellow: scout, entertainer, and unsuccessful businessman. There’s an interesting scandal associated with why he is buried in Denver rather than in his home town. It seems that at the time of his death, Bill was heavily in debt to the publisher of a Denver newspaper. This fellow kindly offered Bill’s widow the following deal: allow Buffalo Bill to be buried in Denver and I’ll cancel your debt plus give you a big fat check.

In the afternoon, we visited the Denver Botanical Gardens, which wasn’t quite what we expected. Denver has been experiencing a drought for the last several years; therefore, the gardens have been reducing their water usage. They now feature native and water-thrifty plants almost exclusively. It took some time for the concept to sink in; but finally I could see the beauty of the idea, if not the composition.

That night, we watched the 4th of July fireworks from the porch of the house of one of Dianne’s coworkers.

Colorado Springs is renowned for its Garden of the Gods – sandstone formations left standing millions of years ago after the surrounding softer rocks were eroded away. Dianne and I drove down there on Friday morning; and throughout the drive I explained how uninspired the mid-West had left me. I’m more at home amongst the green coastal regions with meandering paths overhung by shady trees rather than the barren hills with scattered sage brush. What ever my preference, I’ll have to revisit the Garden of the Gods. I won’t try to describe it because I’m certain my words will be unequal to the task. If I’m fortunate, maybe one or two of the photographs I took that morning captured some of the surreality of the park. If not, I’ll be revisiting again soon.

Friday evening, Dianne and I went to see the Cirque du Soliel performance at the Pepsi Center. I’m not certain how to describe something like a Cirque du Soliel show. It’s part theater and part circus and all fun. If you haven’t seen one of their extravaganzas yet, you must find out when they are in town and go.

Eastern Colorado and Kansas isn’t a visual sensation – unless that sensation is acute boredom. But once I entered the Great State of Texas, I began to fear for my life. Every Texan drives a truck. Every Texan completely ignores the speed limit. And every Texan tailgates.

The Houston area, where my brother Bob and his wife Aileen live, isn’t endowed with beautiful scenery. Or if it is, I couldn’t tell through the haze of pollution and humidity. Bob, Aileen and I drove down to Galveston, TX to visit an eccentric Army Surplus store and grab a bite to eat on the Gulf. The store had lots of cats – which speaks well of the owner.

I also had the pleasure of attending a meeting of Bob’s volunteer fire department. Some of the firemen seemed ill at ease when I appeared with my camera. There’s a little bit of a scandal going around in the Ponderosa volunteer fire department. The former chief of this department was recently named Fire Marshal for the county and has subsequently become embroiled in a small matter of public infidelity. It a really odd story. Soon after becoming Fire Marshal, he fired the existing secretary and hired his old secretary from the volunteer department. This fired secretary filed suit claiming age discrimination. During the depositions, the new secretary dropped a bomb: she claimed that she first became acquainted with the Fire Marshal when he raped her about three years ago while they were both attending a conference. They then began dating (unfortunately, the Chief is currently married and his son is a career oriented fireman).

Although Bob had told the new chief I was coming to visit, the chief hadn’t spread the word. It was much more fun to see the firemen stew: thinking I was a reporter from the local newspaper trying to get some cheap photos.

The training exercises were after the meeting. The night’s lesson was forcible entry: how to get through a door. In order to make the lesson challenging, the firemen had their masks blacked out and the instructor kept coming up with interesting twists on the standard. For example, Bob’s team started out with Bob almost out of air and with all his personal safety alarms sounding. After they got through the door – unlike the rest of the Beginner crew, Bob had all sorts of tools in his fireman’s pants – their tailman was knocked unconscious by a falling door (according to the instructor any way). Bob had to stay by the door to help them out; but because he has clearly more experience than the rest of them, they didn’t do so good recovering the injured.

I’m not certain when I’ll be able to send out another update before I head off to Europe, because I’m not intending to bring my laptop along with me on the rest of the trip. Some of you have already had the misfortune of having me stay with you and others are grimly awaiting their moment of misery.