Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wonder Woman's Rogues Gallery

The Top Ten

Too many people (some of whom are DC staffers) claim that Wondie doesn’t have a true rogues gallery, or that the one she has isn’t very impressive. I disagree. Here are the best of her recurring foes, making up a notable menace of international scope:

10. Baroness Paula von Gunther. First appearance: Wonder Woman (first series) #4.The baroness gets a significant part to play in WW canon as she was a major early character, a Nazi mastermind who constantly battled Wondie. In fact, the first TV WW episode starred the baroness (and is one of the few episodes I find really enjoyable).

Paula von Gunther rises from mere Nazi über-agent to be the first criminal that WW REFORMED. Yes, it would have meant more if it hadn’t turned out that Paula was doing all this horrible stuff only because the Nazis were holding hostage her daughter, Gerta. Diana got Gerta back and Paula quickly adopted the Loving Submission that the early book loved to preach, and joined the Amazons.

After that, Paula became not only Diana’s friend but the inventor of all kinds of cool Amazon gadgets. In the Sixties it was explained that she was the one who adapted the Purple Ray to give Donna Troy her Wonder Girl powers.

So she doesn’t really make that great a villain now, but boy, was she back then! And mark her as being German (or thereabouts) in nationality.

So for her replacement let’s add an unrepentant number…

10. Dr. Poison. One of many villains in WW’s rogues gallery who hold doctorates, Dr. P’s first appearance came in Sensation Comics (first series) #2.

As part of her sadistic medical arsenal, Dr. P brandishes needles and viruses and scalpels—all things to make one’s skin crawl. Literally. Dr. P hasn’t been seen that much in the pages of WW, but her appearances have been memorable ones, accented by her ghastly grin (that looks nothing like Joker’s, thank goodness) and propensity to wear mannish lab coats. In this day of pandemic scares, Dr. Poison’s threat is terrifying.

Dr. Poison, both original grandmother and modern granddaughter, are Japanese.

9. Angle Man. First appearance: Wonder Woman (first series) #62. Yet when I speak of Angle Man as a fitting top-level member of Wondie’s rogues gallery, it is the suave and stylish Phil Jimenez version I speak of, and ONLY he. The others were churlish (and boring) wanna-bes and frauds (and the real AM most assuredly dealt with them once he found them). Angelo Bend made his first appearance in Wonder Woman (second series) #179.

The best villains contain layers of characterization, and this AM seemed to seesaw between good and evil. (What’s his angle?) He was infatuated with Donna Troy as well, which likely would need to be switched to Wondie if she and he return, since this is a discussion of Wondie's rogues, not Donna Troy's.

At some modern point it’s been established that the Angle tool that Angelo uses is something he supposedly stole from Darkseid. Now, THAT must be some story! (Or is it a lie?) The angle can twist gravity, light, space, dimensions, and on rare occasion, time. I wonder if Angelo has full control over it?

I once gushed that AM was interesting in this incarnation because he was gay, or mostly so. Phil J. responded that Angelo was not gay; rather, he was European. To this day, this remains one of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard, but Phil was perfectly serious.

Add to AM’s appeal that he’s Italian. And a shade or two darker-skinned than most of the other WW villains. Variety is always welcome!

8. Silver Swan. First appearance: Wonder Woman (first series) #288, and we’ll stick with 85% of that version if we're bringing her back. Ordinarily I’d give a disdainful sniff in her direction. I’ve never liked her because of her motivation. This is a feminist comic (or it’s supposed to be), and for a major female character to have her entire life revolving around her looks is just kind of demeaning to women.

In SS’s case, the sickness propelled her into becoming the Swan. I prefer the first Swan’s origin because she starts out not that bad-looking, but wants more, and this signifies greed: a good basis for a villain. The second Swan truly needed to be cosmetically enhanced, so the reader could feel pity for her and cheer when she eventually reformed. I’ll take the first one, though a revamped character would do well to forget the hour time limit she had for power usage, and utilize the wonders of modern technology for her creation and powers. (The Perez version had the better look.)

The Swan can fly, she has enhanced strength, and she has some kind of Canary Cry that really should be modified because Black Canary already exists. She is quite visually exciting, I’ll give her that. Nationality: American.

7. White Magician. First appearance: Wonder Woman Annual #3, second series. The Magician was killed off, but a revamp could start mid-career with him before he’d turned into a demon.

The Magician is a crazy-layered guy, devious and egocentric. He was born in the same generation as Thomas Jefferson, to whom he was a cousin (or possibly cousin-in-law). WM considered himself essential in the founding of the US, and over the years (his magic gave him a lengthened lifespan, though he is not immortal) he has become incensed that immigrants and (gad) women have gained so much power. His perfect USA would be ruled by rich white male landholders. Even better, it would be ruled by HIM.

The really neat thing about WM is that until a little after Wonder Woman came to Mortal’s World, he played the part of a good guy, even being a member of some minor heroic super groups. Most of the public still revere him as a hero, not knowing how deeply entwined he is in Boston’s underworld and who knows what else.

I hate undefined magic, but WM’s magic was fairly focused on his being able to change people into demonic/evil-Terminator-types who would then do his bidding as hirelings. He could also do other minor magics, but this was his specialty. He supplemented his magics by supporting über-technology-based villains. He was a misogynist who kept beautiful women as long as they obeyed and worked for him.

Nationality: American (as in practically a Founding Father).

6. Giganta. First appearance: Wonder Woman (first series) #9.

The modern Giganta is yet another doctor in Wondie’s rogue gallery. Diana attracts the elite, you know, but we’ll give Giganta credit for not going by the name “Dr. Giganta.” Her shtick is that she can grow to giant size. Efforts have been made to put her in modern uniforms, but let’s face it, the ol’ animal print is a classic. Let’s just assume she wears something under that skirt. Please.

Every hero needs a goofy villain. Giganta is Wondie’s. It took Phil J. (sorry; not trying to name-drop) to remind me of this. And of course, Giganta is quite the spectacular figure moving across the comic book page. As the temporary partner of another villain, she can even accomplish some serious sh… I mean, stuff. And when she was romancing Ryan (Atom) Choi and seemingly trying to go straight, she was hilarious.

Nationality: Darned if I know what Dr. Zeul is. The name is Prussian. She’s probably American, or maybe that’s just the nationality of the body she ended up with. Hm. Brain: Russian; body: American? Mexican? Canadian?

5. [Dr.] Cyber. First appearance: Wonder Woman (first series) #179. No, I don’t mean the “I want to steal Wonder Woman’s face” Dr. Cyber with the metal mask! We already have the Silver Swan with the hangup about her looks. A serious feminist villain doesn’t have self-image problems.

No, the original Cyber (there are too many doctors in the rogues gallery, so let’s lose Cyber’s title as part of her villain name, though she can keep the degree[s]) was created at the height of the James Bond craze, and she’s the ultimate James Bond-type villain. Entirely human, she heads a worldwide, underground organization whose sole goal is to get Cyber more money. And likely the power that goes with it. She is the hidden force behind conspiracies and is spoken about in whispers, only coming into the open on rare occasion. Most who have heard the whispers assume she’s a man.

Cyber is stylish, smooth and very likely British, as most Bond villains are. Her organization has historically been depicted as primarily female, but I hate homogeneous groups (BO-ring!), so if we bring her back in her proper form, she should be an equal-opportunity employer.

Her top lieutenant or at least an important underling, is Lu Shan, the Chinese daughter of Diana’s one-time partner, Lu (I Ching) Shu-Shang. It never hurts to have a family connection to the hero!

4. The creepy Dr. Psycho’s first appearance was in Wonder Woman (first series) #5. A premier example of a misogynist, he has too often been depicted as merely a criminal hypnotist. But no, in addition to his telepathic, illusion-casting, mind-raping hypnotism, he is evil incarnate. He hates women and will use them in any way he can.

Even so, he doesn’t mind—doesn’t mind at all—using men in his schemes as well.

Psycho’s one scary-looking guy. Add his madness to the mix, and you have a prime supervillain.

Nationality? I always “hear” him with a spooky but exotic accent. Let’s see… Brazil or thereabouts? Let’s spread the villain wealth around the world!

3. Circe. It’s hard to believe, but Circe first appeared in WW in issue #37 of the first series. We usually think of the version that first appeared in issue #18 of the second series (Perez run).

Many fans have been upset that Circe has been cast as a villain. Certainly when I was growing up, Circe was a good guy who occasionally appeared in Superman family comics. (It was she who was involved in the origin of Comet the Super-Horse.) If you want an crazy-evil witch from classical Greek myths, Medea is your gal.

But we’ve been given Circe. (To DC’s credit, for a while her fate/soul was tangled with Medea’s.) I hate undefined magic and Circe is one of the slew of undefined magic users that darken various comic universes. However, in mythology and often in comics, Circe had a specialty: she turned people into animals. If she keeps to that gimmick and only relies on other magic in limited (may I hope for defined?) ways, she makes a fearsome adversary.

Add in Loebs’ storyline in which Circe double-crossed herself in hopes of becoming Ares’ wife/partner and wound up befriending Diana, and you’ve got a complex character to play with!

Circe’s Hellenic.

2. The chaotic [Dr. again!] Cheetah. First appearance: WW #6, first series. Cheetah has appeared in three different major variations. (We won’t count He-Cheetah who only appeared in a couple issues.) First she was Priscilla Rich, who suffered from split personality. This is a favorite of quite a few Wondiacs. (May I coin that term? All right, we’ll forget it.) After her death in the Bronze Age, the Kobra organization brainwashed her niece Debbie Domaine into becoming the new Cheetah. Neither had any powers. What, you send someone without powers to go mano a mano against Wondie? Not on my watch!

Nope, the best Cheetah was Dr. Barbara Minerva (an unfortunate last name), a rather horrible British (South African?) archaeologist (so many archaeologists in the WW mythos! We should give some of them new specialities, like Barbara should have been an anthropologist or historian) who willingly enslaved herself to the madness and power of Urtzkartaga (I usually call him “Urtsy-Wurtsy” because I can never remember the name), an African god, in order to achieve immortality. After periodic blood offerings she becomes a were-cheetah, a super-strong, demonic, claw-wielding killing force worthy to oppose Wonder Woman.

She’s a great one for the visual medium of comics. Her appearance, unless she’s wearing a sleek modern costume, is striking, and her methods are brutal. She was often accompanied by her minion, the West African (Which country? Were we ever told?) priest Chuma. He’s dead now but could be brought back for new adventures. You know how comics are.

If I were to revamp the character for use in a modern series, I'd change her name to Dr. Barbara Domaine.

1. Ares. He was there almost from the first; definitely from the first issue of Wonder Woman, though after his introduction he went by the name of Mars for a long time. Aphrodite championed Wondie to fight a world at war, personified by Ares.

Consider this: Wonder Woman’s theme is positive empowerment. Ares stands at the opposite of that. He wants the world enslaved. To whom? It doesn’t matter, so long as there’s discord, violence and misery. They will be enslaved to his power.

Writers have a tendency to portray comic book gods as high-level super-types who utilize undefined magic. But think again about WHY humanity created gods. They were to explain the unexplainable and provide logic to an illogical world. Gods personified forces of nature.

Thus picture Ares as War itself: sometimes calculating and logical, but usually unbridled fury. Hatred, jealousy, murderousness, cruelty in their raw forms. Give him a little classicism and have him able (sometimes) to operate in a human way in that he holds war as an honorable calling. He knows his energy is dark, and he glories in it.

He is a GOD, a personification of the violence of the human psyche, and therefore he should not be able to descend to true human realms and form without extreme effort. (See: Ares Buchanan.) So he has to whisper his temptations to humans in their dreams, or he utilizes unique minions to carry out his orders. (See: Duke of Deception, Deimos, original Silver Swan, etc.) He can set up circumstances to bring discord and hatred into the world, and when it arrives his presence can boil the very heavens with his exultation. You want to compare him to Darkseid? Heck, it’s Ares who gives Darkseid his ideas! Ares is the one who gains the most from Darkseid’s triumphs.

Ares’ threats can come from any direction and through any medium. He’s a tremendous foe who can only be beaten back temporarily.

There you have it: A rogues gallery that is ten strong and contains a wide variety of powerful villains who are interesting both in character and visuals—perfect for comics!

Don’t let anyone say again that Wonder Woman doesn’t have a great rogues gallery!
Wondering why some of your favorites aren't on this list? Here's your answer.

Hey, folks, I just republished a book this week: Applesauce and Moonbeams.
It's soft sci fi:
cover of Applesauce and Moonbeams

After a hit man blasts telepathic psychiatrist David Lumen’s mind into the body of a pampered kitty on its way home to the moon, David’s desperate plan to make himself whole again is hampered by his new feline life. The only person close enough to communicate with is struggling avant-garde artist, Pippin Applegate.

Together they spot David’s body walking around... with the hit man’s mind inside. Can David regain his true body when it’s leaving a trail of chaos and murder that leads to Pippin’s make-or-break art show?

I'd appreciate it if you checked it out, maybe even wrote an honest review for it. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Has it been twenty years already?


Oh heck, first it embedded the video and then it didn't. I give up. Go to this link and view it, okay?

That's Hillsborough, NC mayor Tom Stevens on the left, and PHE, Inc. founder/chairman (I think his new title is since he recently stepped down from being president) Phil Harvey on the right, cutting the ribbon to the new warehouse for Adam & Eve.

That's right, the nation's premier adult product retailer. This made it official: we added 30,000 square feet to our existing 40,000-or-so square-foot warehouse.

Business is good.

We're one of Orange County's largest employers, with 300 employees. That doesn't include the people employed at our franchises located around the country.

Me? I've been with the company for oh, 31 1/2 years or so. (My supervisor's always asking me, "When are you going to retire?" Don't know what to make of that.) (And it only feels like it's been 10 years or so.)

When I was out of work so many years ago, desperate for ANYTHING, I started at a small warehouse-plus-offices building located to the west of Carrboro, NC. Previously the company had been in downtown Chapel Hill (which is attached to Carrboro like a Siamese twin). The office I worked in had windows that faced brick, a sign of the company already expanding, for that office had once been on an outer wall.

Eventually that building got crowded. How crowded? You had to dodge cardboard box mountains in the halls. They kicked us in Marketing and another department out and we moved to an ancient warehouse in Hillsborough that required a lot of fixing up before we arrived.

In those days I lived just past the northeast edge of Hillsborough, and every morning I drove past a lovely little farm. That farm was sold, and offices began to be built on the land. I told my supervisor that  it might be a good spot for us to move to, since we were looking.

Sure enough, the company bought that lot. (My supervisor snapped at me later that they'd already decided on the lot before I brought it up. That was kind of strange since she acted like she'd never heard of it when I talked to her.) Almost twenty years ago the new building opened there. How handy to have work so close when Hurricane Fran hit! Our office park, which also contains a nursing home and hospice (and vet and Sportsplex and wine company and chainsaw company and ambulance group and really, really rotten dentist, a school, a senior center…) was one of the first places to get electricity back. I recharged my laptop daily at my desk, and it was one of my primary ways of lighting my house for a week. Working in a semi-functioning office was also preferable to hanging around in a powerless house.

But eventually I moved while PHE stayed where it was. The office part is three stories high, and offices/departments are always being shifted around. Don't know why. Seems to me that would get expensive after a while. The warehouse is two stories. Someone said that five million orders go out of there each year, or maybe the new warehouse will be able to handle another five million or something, but a whole lot of orders are processed in our warehouse!

So thanks out there, for ordering from us. You've allowed me to pay for housing, a couple cars, groceries, etc. Hillsborough has not (as the opponents to our moving there warned) put up billboards proclaiming it the Sex Capital of the South. In 2005 PHE, Inc. was awarded "Business of the Year" by the Hillsborough Chamber of Commerce.

We've survived numerous court cases and raids (yes, I've been in a raid!), and are one of the few corporations that have taken on the United States of America in court and WON. (Which reminds me: I still haven't read Phil's book about his view of the events.)

Quite a few years ago (more like well over a decade) a co-worker and I were both beginning our first writing endeavors. We promised each other that our lead characters would work at Adam & Eve. Next month Stalemate, volume 3 of the superhero series "Three Worlds," will be coming out, and a sequence in it has one of our heroes touring a company that his darling bride works for. It looks suspiciously like an amalgam of Adam & Eve of about twenty years ago and the one of today. I think it's a pretty funny set of scenes. And the situation will come into play on a more serious level if, I mean when I publish Whore of the Worlds, which is volume… Oh, I don't know. Eight-ish.

So thanks, Adam & Eve and all your cousin companies, for supporting me all these years. Long may you wave! I'll try not to think about the fact that tomorrow I'll be ordering scores of vibrators again. (Y'see, along with my regular duties I also check our email campaigns, which involves tracking an order—usually a vibrator—through the ordering process to make sure there are no slip-ups. I live in fear of actually ordering one instead of hitting the "edit my order" button at the very end and then canceling. Good thing I'm using someone else's name.)

Next week: An exciting Wonder Woman column! With actual pictures! And I'll be announcing the re-release of Applesauce and Moonbeams! (Whew, finally!)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Way Out West, Finale

Grand Tetons, ahoy! Wow! You have NEVER seen such beautiful mountains as the Grand Tetons (trans: "Big Boobies")! There's some kind of short fault line where the eastern side of land slides UNDER the west, which bursts forth to tower UP!!! You can be walking on flat ground, heading west, and suddenly your nose will hit a mountainside. Tom told us that from the Idaho (west) side, the mountains rise quite gradually.

The Tetons also have Jackson Lake to reflect into. If I had to choose one place on this tour to return to, I'd stay in Jackson and zip up the road so I could take a week or so painting the varied vistas of the Grand Tetons. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow!

To the left is the Chapel of the Transfiguration, and there Tom told us of one of the women on his tours. Her daughter had died quite suddenly a couple years before, and the last picture this woman had of her daughter was of her standing next to a chapel in the mountains somewhere. The woman had been in deep mourning ever since, and it had been all her family had been able to do to get her to go on a vacation. When she arrived here, she realized that this was the very place her daughter had stood. She went behind the church and cried, but emerged feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from her. Her depression was gone.

Me, I took pics because the mountains were pretty and there was a split-rail fence that might make some interesting paintings. Am I soulless?

A point along the way had the WY DOT stopping all buses in both directions for inspection. This only took 20 minutes, and they let the bus disgorge us all at a convenient rest stop next to a marina. Tom said it was really surprising how many buses didn't pass inspection. If that happened, the passengers had to wait six hours for a new bus to be dispatched from Salt Lake City. Luckily, our bus was brand new and passed.

Speaking of passing, we were passing through Jackson Hole. "Hole" means "valley," and it is a long one indeed. There's a park within it that is home to thousands of elk, who have their mating ground there (when they're not in Yellowstone, I guess). I now have a tee shirt that says: "Got oxygen? Jackson Hole, WY 13,770'" In that case, they're referring to the ski resort and not the valley.

Even so, altitude was a large factor in this vacation. The itinerary book was full of "make sure you stay hydrated" warnings with suggestions to bring along stuff like Pedialyte and Emergen-C to alleviate altitude sickness. Tom told us that he'd had quite a few come down with it, and that they were all found to be dehydrated. According to our book, the tour was to furnish us with two bottles of water a day, but we only got one (and sometimes only then when we asked for it). We refilled along the way.

Oh! Forgot to say that Yellowstone and Grand Teton almost touch each other. Grand Teton park is the only American park that is actually growing, because way back when (Great Depression), when some people thought the GT should become a national park, Congress was too broke to consider it. So these people got John D. Rockefeller to buy up bunches of ranches anonymously in the area for the park.

Some people refused to sell, but a deal was brokered that (I'm kind of vague on this, but in general this is right) everyone who was alive at that point would get to live on their property, and after they died the land would be bought at a fair price by the gummint and then go to the park. I think 2020 is the final day of the deal, so there must have been a deadline in there somewhere as well.

Tom told us of one family where a woman owned the land and had 3 sons. She tried to figure out which son would get the land when she passed on (she couldn't split the parcel), and the sons commenced to great and public bickering and even physical fights. This was apparently a well-known family, and the feud made its way all too often into the papers. One night the woman notified her lawyers, went to town, and flat-out donated her land to the park! Boom!

The park has a very expansive, modern visitor center. They've sworn off paper bags—oh, they're so eco-minded!—which makes shopping in the gift shop a real pain. Bring your own bags. Cloth ones.
Across the road from the center we boarded vans that took us 10 miles upriver to get into rafts so we could float down the Snake River. It turns out it should be the "Shoshone" or even "Salmon" River, but the whites who asked the Indians the name of the river (and the tribe) were shown a wavy-handed gesture that was to indicate salmon. The whites thought they were making snakey movements.

Anywayz, there are bees all over the place there. One of our guys got stung before even getting into the raft. Another guy—we'll call him Creepy Geezer—kept touching me and saying he was trying to keep the bees away from me. I told him thanks, but they really weren't bothering me. In fact, I worried they might get mad from all the "swiping" he was doing. CG's wife had elected not to take the raft trip. Ew.

But it was relaxing. A couple places were bouncy, and they showed us rope to hang on to, but my rope was on my right (next to CG) and I was holding my camera in my right hand and there was just a metal something that really wasn't much of a handle on my left. But I held tight to that and kept my butt clenched the entire 2 hours, as I really wasn't sure just how far back I could sit without falling into the drink.

They served us a bag lunch which consisted of the driest turkey sandwich you can imagine. We got a little squirt pak of mustard, and you know that gets EVERYWHERE, but we had one of those tiny wet nap things that cleaned up about an eighth of it. I told my local Subway crew how I wished they'd been there, and they got a laugh out of it.
 Still, hard to complain when the scenery was so magnificent! We saw HUGE bald eagles with HUGER, GIGANTIC nests. Apparently the older a nest gets, the more the eagles (who return every year) build it up. There were ducks and fishermen. You can't catch fish in Yellowstone or GT unless you fly-fish. Otherwise you have to use barbless hooks and throw the fish back, unless they're an invasive species, in which case you HAVE to take them because the system's trying to get rid of those guys. They were a good intention of the past that we're trying to reverse now.

Our boat master pointed out the channel in which Walt Disney had filmed otters back in the '50s. He'd been out on the Snake River and had been charmed by the otters there (we didn't see any), and had returned swiftly with a film crew. What did they find? No otters. So Disney calls up Hollywood, orders some trained otters to be sent out toot sweet, and voila! They film a "nature" episode for their Sunday night series, featuring an otter family!

Only thing is: after a few days filming in the fish-rich river, the trained otters refused to return to their trainers. They never saw them again.
We arrived in Jackson, WY, where even shacks sell for $600,000. There's a ski lift that comes right into downtown. For the first time we stayed at a motel, which was nice enough. Tom enjoyed drinking by the pool there. The bus dropped most folks off downtown, to return two hours later. I didn't want to be stuck with such a time table when I knew I would be heading out for dinner, so I took advantage of Jackson's free bus service (the stop was a LOT farther from the motel than they led you to think), and moseyed about downtown.

Downtown Jackson has a lot of un-signalled intersections: no lights, no stop signs. I didn't understand how traffic was supposed to work. The town also doesn't like to mark its streets with name signs. When it does mark them, the map doesn't. Locals apparently don't know how to read maps, because I showed 'em mine and they'd puzzle over it and then shake their heads as if I were showing them a map of the Martian canals instead of Jackson. I got lost about three thousand times. I ate at a recommended Mexican restaurant, where the food was okay and the service TERRIBLE (I wrote a scathing note on the bill), and then got lost a few more times before I found the bus stop and camped out there for a half hour while young local teens, tired of playing at a rec park, began to stare at me through the glass walls of the shelter. And lick the glass. While their mothers watched.

Still, the downtown area is set up mainly as a tourist area, what with the antler arch in the center green, and all kinds of art shops, bars, theaters, "get a silly western photo made with you in costume" places, saloons, ice cream parlors, and taverns. Farther out from downtown were extensive RV parks and a rodeo going on. Our server at the breakfast buffet said he lived in Ohio and was retired, but he was living in a trailer in Jackson (during the tourist months, I guess), working two jobs just to keep his head above water. ???
I had to take a picture of the above, because it was hanging at the library that was next to the bus stop. Superheroes!Traveling south, we came to the Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, ID, a museum that Tom said was about to close its doors before he and the other tour directors convinced Caravan to put it officially on their tour. It's a really cute museum! They have a "ride" set up downstairs where you clamber into a Conestoga Wagon and they bump it around like you're traveling in it, while recorded people read from diaries of the settlers. What makes this weird is that you get off the wagon and they've got a large camp and store set up that demonstrates that one did NOT ride in the wagon unless one were deathly ill. The wagon was for supplies only.
Six others and I were handed handkerchiefs before the tour began, and at the end of the tour it was announced that we all died during the crossing. The fatality rate was something like 1 in 7 or 8 or so.
The pic above is Ray, our bus driver, and "Tom," our tour director. Let me tell you about "Tom." From the moment we first got on the bus in the early morning to the time we stepped off at night, his lips were flapping. He was full of interesting info, but Tom, we were on vacation, not in class! He even gave us a written exam ("It's just a joke," he told us in all seriousness) on the final day to make sure we had absorbed all his wisdom. It was a blow to his ego when we got an answer wrong.

He told us MANY times how the prez of Caravan had seen him in action and personally insisted that he join the team. According to Tom, Tom was the best tour director ever. Every time we made an extra stop that wasn't in the original itinerary, Tom let us know that he was the one who'd arranged it, because he was the best at what he was. Tom wants to be a standup comedian. He's certainly got the ego and speech skills for it, but needs to practice more.

Tom, silence is golden! The day before the tour ended, he must have run out of things to say because he put on a DALE EVANS album and let it run through TWICE. The final day he actually shut up for two hours as he did paperwork. Heaven! I got to work on some fun projects I'd brought along, knowing that we'd have stretches of open country to go through.

He's a good tour guide, make no mistake. He's patient with the crazy geezers, very friendly and personable, he knows (most of) his stuff, he kept everyone on schedule, he had all the booklets and pamphlets we needed, and he didn't grab a drink until after his shift was over for the day. But SHUT UP now and then, Tom!

After this, we traveled past some interesting rock formations and eventually found ourselves in Salt Lake City. It's very clean. I got extreme creeps from Temple Square, though, and was trying to sort my way through them. Was it because the place was truly creepy? Because here was a center of religion, which I regard as a fairly creepy concept? I kept trying to tell myself that the people here were just people, the same as anyone, and I shouldn't be prejudiced, but still… creepy. If I ever visit Vatican City, I'm sure I'll have the same experience. Brr.

Anyway, I did go to the visitor center in Temple Square, expecting to get a visitor center type experience. You know: "This is who we are, where we come from, how we got here, what we believe, how we are proceeding into the future." Is that too much to expect? Instead I saw young women telling visitors about how Heavenly Father wanted everyone to be baptized, and say, there was a baptismal font nearby, and wouldn't we like to go get baptized?

Brr. Ray the driver asked me how I liked Temple Square and I said it was creepy. He gave a big laugh and agreed, so maybe I'm not completely crazy.

Arriving on a Thursday means that if the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is in town, they'll be having a public rehearsal. It sounds like a flimsy excuse, but I was alone, in a strange city, the venue was three long, beggar-filled blocks down and one long block over from the hotel, and it would be well after dark. I had things to do and rest to get, so I forewent the experience.

The Hilton was nice, though. Hiltons are almost always nice. I shipped two boxes home from there. Think I paid at least five bucks extra for each because of all the tape the guy at the desk slapped on the packages.

Funny thing: our tour instructions said that we each could bring one luggage case and one carry-on that was encouraged to be small, as we were on a bus and not a plane, and our overhead compartments were limited. The majority of people on this trip had TWO pieces of large luggage to be stowed under the bus. Hope they tipped well. (Our instructions also told us how much to tip, but Tom had his own ideas about that. Larger ideas.) I had a collapsible bag that came into use about halfway through the trip, but since I was a single traveler, I just stowed it on the extra seat. This was what I emptied out in Salt Lake City to travel home by UPS.

We had our Farewell Dinner (actually tasty!), and Tom gave a little speech. He also went through one glass of wine and three martinis. I ran into him later in the elevator, and he was working on yet another martini. Don't know how many there'd been in all.

The next day I enjoyed lolling about a bit before picking up a rental car from Fox Rentals, an off-brand that had branches in SLC and Denver. They also don't have offices near the other regular companies. But they're cheap! And the car was a good one, a Yaris that often howled in protest, but kept trolling on.

I found myself driving at 80 mph. Legally! Ack! But it wasn't bad. The first section through the mountains outside SLC would have been hair-raising at higher speeds, but everything was 45 because it was all under construction. We got through that and the road flattened out.

Now and then I passed more continental divides, and signs posted the elevation. Man, we were still high up, though everything was flat! Oh. High Plains Drifter came to mind; I was on the High Plains.

The landscape really began to look like I was in a Western, with all those Marlboro-manly rock ridges on top of the hills, though for long stretches the only thing I could think of was all those people in their wagons way back when, plugging their way across these dry, endless flat stretches of nothingness. I'd go up a butte, and come down to face another flat plane that would take twenty minutes to traverse at 80 mph. Most were yellowish-brown, but some would be a definite yellow; another, red. One was so light a yellow it looked white, and made things difficult to see. Once I looked up and all of a sudden some bright red, rocky cliffs were hanging over the highway!

And the gas needle was heading toward E.

I'd determined that as soon as it hit halfway, I'd stop for gas, but there wasn't any! I passed a few boarded-up stations and was really, REALLY beginning to sweat as the needle went lower and lower (it went low quick after the halfway point). 

GAS! I swooped in and filled up. Whew. Whew, whew, whew!

Hung a left [at Albuquerque] at Rawlins, which was marked for Casper. There were NO gas stations along this route! So glad I'd filled up when I could. (They could have put in a few more stations along the way, don't you think?) This stretch was a bunch of NOTHING again, though there were rolling hills faaaar to left and right. Ahead there seemed to be a hard storm looming, but I finally came to the conclusion that you could just see so danged far that atmospheric perspective made things mooshy out there, and cloud shadows darkened things to look rainy.

Signs told us to turn our lights on. Why? Because you couldn't tell where opposite traffic was amid the pavement mirages, and a lot of people wanted to pass, doing 90 mph. With lights, you had a better guess, though I still saw two almost-collisions.

As soon as we'd gotten into Wyoming from UT, there were signs everywhere: "Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving." There were also warnings for high winds, and every now and then there'd be railroad arms to either side of the road with no railroad in sight. A quarter-mile in front of these arms would be signs saying that if the lights on those signs were flashing, the road ahead was closed and you had to turn around. I take it this is used for blizzards. What if you don't have anywhere to go if you turn around? I suppose it's better than dying in snow.

YAY! Out in the middle of nowhere, a rest stop! You KNOW I pulled over. Turned out this was also a historic site, one for Independence Rock, the marker for pioneers. If you'd reached the rock by July 4th, you were on schedule to reach the west coast before winter. Pioneers inscribed their names on the rock. So do modern tourists, covering up the earlier names. (I think it's now illegal to do so.) I'd passed by a museum a short distance from this place that commemorated the handcarts used by the Mormon pioneers. The guy at the Tate (see below) highly recommended that, but he was an enthusiastic Mormon and I don't think I'll be back that way again, thank you.

Independence Rock had a short hiking trail from the rest stop to the rock. Halfway there was a low bridge from which you could look down and see actual ruts from the wagons that had passed.

Yes, I finally arrived at Casper, and armed with my Mapquest directions, got thoroughly lost. The entire town is a mass of road construction and lack of "end of detour" signs. Finally found my rather odd hotel (thanks, people who were having car probs. If I'd known my way around town, I'd have offered to help you as well) and set off the following morning to the visitors' center.

These pics certainly are falling in odd ways. This is Ft. Caspar,
showing the ferry used to take covered wagons
across the Platte, which was once a very wild river,
but now has a dam calming it. I would not trust
this thing!
It was closed. The two other cars that arrived at the same time as I, discovered that the center had just, on this final weekend of August, begun its "winter hours," which meant it wasn't open on the weekends. A visitors' center not open on the weekends?

Downtown at the library (what a lucky find!), the main floor librarian almost out-and-out called me a liar for suggesting that. She was certainly angry at me! (That is, once she had deigned to recognize my presence.) The upstairs librarian called the chamber of commerce, but since they're in the same office, they didn't answer the phone either. "Well, that's certainly dumb of them," she mused. But she gave me a few pamphlets and suggestions as to what to see in town. Who needs a stupid visitors' center when you have… TA DAH!… a librarian?!
Downtown Casper reminded me a lot of Hendersonville, NC, in its parking system that also made sure traffic didn't go too fast, and many small, interesting-looking shops. Instead I started off at a shopping center I could find easily, picked up souvenirs and a TOWN MAP, on which the gentleman behind the counter very kindly showed me where Ft. Caspar was. I hadn't really planned to visit any museum-type places; rather, I wanted to get the feel of the town. But the town seemed ordinary enough, and the museums turned out to be rather fascinating!

Ft. Caspar is spelled correctly. It's named for Caspar Collins and is not Ft. Collins because I would drive past Ft. Collins the next day as I left Wyoming. That was named after Caspar's daddy. Yokel pioneers misspelled Caspar's name so the town is "Casper."

Warning: Though there's a modest visitor's center here (and a nice one), the many, many books it stocks are priced WAY above what you'd find them at elsewhere. Glad I'd been checking around before visiting!

This is the fort, above. It's not the real one, but was recreated from Caspar's drawings by the CCC during the Depression. You can see the rooms furnished and stuff. The enlisted men had bunk beds in which there were two men per mattress, so that's 4 men per bed. Cozy!

The Tate Museum celebrates all the fossils of the area. Dee the Mammoth is not only a mammoth, but a Colombian Mammoth, which means s/he is HUGELY bigger than your regular run-of-the-mill mammoth. She (I like to think of her as a "she") was discovered when people were trying to start a new oil drill site, and literally ran into her pelvis instead. She was 70 years old and pretty arthritic when she died.

So why did the museum just install a T Rex outside? I think someone said this is a copy of Sue, the TRex from Rapid City, SD. (Bringing our tale to a nice circle.) If I'd just turned around, I could have gotten a pic of a small herd of pronghorn, which thrive in the area and I didn't notice until I was driving away. As it was, the 75-YO gentleman at the desk inside regaled me with stories of the area and its people. He was a Vietnam vet who had run away from home at age 14. He said if he'd been supervisor on the team that had unearthed Dee and stopped construction, the men involved would have been looking for new jobs the next day. He was proud of the area, his state, and his Mormon conversion.

I told him I was looking for a spot to put the headquarters of my superhero characters in my novels, someplace run down that they could upgrade to something spiffy. Without blinking, he told me exactly where it should go. I'll bring it in closer to town, but keep the idea. He also gave me some pieces of jade for free. Thanks so much! I've got his name written down somewhere so he can be in the book acknowledgements.

The next day I filled up the tank (you betcha!) and barreled out of town. Well, not so much. I didn't see a speed limit sign for 30 miles so I did 65 in what turned out to be an 80 mph zone. Rolling landscape. I'd look over the side of the shoulder and think, "Oh, so that's what arroyos look like." Well, maybe they weren't arroyos (though I saw some of those), but rather those small canyons that so often were dead ends just as the guys in the black hats were closing in. What are those called?

Rest stops began to bear signs warning of rattlesnakes. I could see, about 100 miles off to the west, someone was having a huge rainstorm, and the tearing wind was blowing it my way. Glad I hadn't stopped at one dinosaur museum (the road from Casper to Denver had a good number of towns/stops along it) because such a delay would have placed me in the middle of the storm. As it was, I made a quick stop at an Arby's in Cheyenne for lunch and got one of their tasty sandwiches to eat in the car. (Hey, I rather like Arby's.) Trouble was, traffic was getting heavy, the speed limit was high, the wind was roaring, I was in a tiny car, and there was this HUGE STORM about to drop on us. I could only grab a tiny bite at a time.

At one point the air turned BLACK in front of us and you could just feel the entire column of traffic brace for impact. Turns out it was just the wind lifting some black dirt off a construction site. The worst we got was a medium rain that only lasted for a few minutes. Whew.

Denver arrived rather suddenly. I was expecting to have to climb to it, but we were already on a high plain. There are mountains off to Denver's west, but no other directions. The highways were busy merging this way and that, but luckily Mapquest gave the proper exit and at the end of the ramp, there was my hotel.

Unfortunately,  it was a rather ratty hotel. Well, not really a top-tier hotel, let's say that. There were rough types about, though they came with kids. A group of loud people gathered around their white van, which was parked behind my car (which was parked in a "compact car" space), talking about how they should just grab one of the compact spaces for their vans, and dare the hotel to tow them. The next morning my rental had scratch marks from where the door of a white van had hit it. Rrr. (The company didn't deduct anything for it, though. Thanks, Fox!) The hotel's computer was half-busted, and the staff acted like they'd just moved to the city and didn't know where anything was. At 7 the next morning there were men drinking beer next to the front door. It was listed as a "central" hotel, but we weren't near central city. (There was a shuttle that went around to several hotels in the area and took guests to various shopping malls.) I got lost looking for Mile High Comics (I turned right instead of left) and the guy I stopped for directions warned me to get out of that neighborhood asap because it wasn't a good one.

I'd had high hopes for Mile High, hoping to find a nice Wonder Woman statue I didn't yet have. They're the largest comics shop in the world, right? And this warehouse I found, out there in our rotten neighborhood (across the tracks and highway from the hotel), was a large one. It was having a Labor Day sale, but there were few customers. I settled on a couple of kiddie WW books (a BOGO deal), one of which was by Paul Kupperberg. I need to ask him why he had Dr. Psycho disguised as a clown who was colored like the Joker. HOW MANY STORIES must we suffer through that try to connect Wondie with the Bat mythos??? Argh. I also got contact names and phone #'s for the people to ask about getting rid of my collection when I get it organized.

Anyway, got lost (of course) on the way to the car rental place the next morning. Saw a gas station—it's always best to fill up before returning a car, because the rental places charge you three times the going rate for gas—and the place had a store adjacent. Walked in, went to the guy behind the counter. "I'm lost," I began.

"Fox?" he asked. Another guy suddenly appeared beside him. "Fox rental car?"

"Yes." Good golly, how many people must come into this place looking for Fox?

They were nice enough to go outside and point me to where I needed to go. Thank you, kind sirs! I sent all kinds of white light in your direction.

The makeshift boarding pass I got at the airport told me to trade it in at the gate, so as soon as a human appeared there, I did so. They took it, assured me that I'd get a seat on the plane, and then got busy with other things. A digital display showed the slew of standbys waiting on this Labor Day. Again and again they told me I was definitely on the plane. The plane boarded. I was still at the gate.

But finally they waved me through, hurray! And I sat next to a gentleman whose breath could be smelled fifty feet away. Now I don't think that this was a question of poor hygiene; rather, I think it was he who GAVE ME THE PLAGUE!!!! Yep, that Western virus that the news was trying to make such a big thing out of. I'm just getting over it even as I write this.

Parking at RDU set me back about $130, ouch, but the car was fine and so was the house. Eventually the boxes from Salt Lake found their way to my door and I could finish unpacking. Of course my magnet collection (cheap, small and light for souvenirs) has been enlarged. Let's start at the top here: There's Mount Rushmore with Yellowstone next to it. The metal moose says it loves Wyoming, then there's Little Bighorn, Jackson Hole, and a picture of an Idaho RV. Next row down is a Texas armadillo, a Colorado moose, a round Grand Teton moose (okay, I collect moosies. I also got a stuffed moose from Grand Teton park), and a Casper cowboy. Bottom row is Crazy Horse and Salt Lake City.

Book read on outward trip: A Week to be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. Very nice! Homeward trip: Born in Ice, by Nora Roberts, one of her better reads! Sniff.

And let me just note here at the end that tonight it's supposed to snow 9 inches around Little Bighorn, and a little less than that in Yellowstone, where the morning temps will be well below freezing. That's timing!

Feel free to yap about your best travel memories in the comments section. If you have questions, I'll try to answer them.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Way Out West, part 2

Montana's plains and rolling hills became even more rolling. We could see distant mountains dotted with snow. (It had snowed in Yellowstone two nights before.) (Yes, it was August.) Suddenly we were in beautiful Paradise Valley, where the Yellowstone River twisted and turned. So lovely and peaceful!

After a while of following the river we started going up and up. Around a hairpin turn was the famous archway entrance to Yellowstone. There was Ft. Yellowstone (now being used by the Park Service), a rest area, and Mammoth Hot Springs.
I'd been to Yellowstone back in the 5th grade, when the family was stationed in ND. I recalled being almost traumatized by the stench of sulfur. This trip, the sulfur didn't seem to overwhelm the senses for some reason. And of course, back then tourists were encouraged to feed the bears, so they'd come right up to the cars and beg. Around 1972 or so, Yellowstone made the decision to keep the bears wild, and they closed dumps, installed bear-proof garbage cans, made it illegal to feed the bears, etc. They lost a lot of bears that first year, but since then things have been fine. And you don't go NEAR a bear.

Mt. Rushmore had been hard on my knees with its uneven surfaces, but all the stairs at Yellowstone made the situation worse. Everything seems to be UP. And those few things that are down seem to require a greater number of stairs to go back UP to your original position. My knees were not happy, especially the left one. (Now that I'm back home, especially after I've been through a bout of post-vacation plague and was bed-ridden for a day, ye knees are happy again.)

You have to stay on the walkways (which are constructed by workers who wear extremely insulated gear and use thermal-detection equipment) because there are horror stories of people who didn't.

One we heard a lot was about two California men, who'd arrived with a pickup and a large dog in the back. They got off at one of the boiling springs (we'd see the site the next day), and the dog, who was not tethered, decided to join them and take a swim. Splash!

One of the men (not the dog's owner) automatically jumped in to save the dog. The crowd managed to hold the owner back. The dog died, of course, but the one man hung on for one more day in hospital at Salt Lake City. "Guess that was a stupid thing to do," were his last words.

I yelled at some young Japanese tourists for getting off the walkway to take their selfies. I mean, there were signs everywhere to stay on the walks!

The elk didn't read. We saw several there moseying around Ft. Yellowstone, right up around the sidewalks. Later we'd see occasional animal tracks through various hot springs, and once saw a bird hopping around one, seemingly undisturbed. There was one visitors' center that had a picture of a bison with all four legs badly burned, walking up a road with a grizzly stalking him, just waiting for him to stumble.

Our step-on guide (a local expert; most bus companies will have one or two during the course of a tour) on the second day lived in the park in an RV trailer. She could have used the dorms the park has for its other employees, but she and her husband own a dog, and animals are not allowed in the dorms. The first day she ever camped at Yellowstone, her neighbor warned her to keep her small dog on a very short leash instead of the retractable leash she had, because coyotes were known to rush out of nowhere and grab small dogs, never to be seen again.

We saw a coyote trotting across the street when we got to our hotel.

But before that, we drove the Yellowstone roads. Top speed is 45 MPH, often reduced. Our tour director, whom we're calling "Tom" here, told us we were lucky because it was August 25, and that was the day Yellowstone employees at the Old Faithful Inn and elsewhere celebrated Christmas, since they weren't employed at the park when Christmas actually rolled around. So at our rest stop at lunch, the employees in the diner I ate at (meh food; huge crowd) all had Christmas hats on. When we got to the Inn, there was a Christmas tree in addition to the hats. Santa showed up later, and employees handed out cookies to the kids. Sound systems in both places were Christmas tunes. Fa la la!

We had also timed things right because the next week, work would begin on a tiny bridge across Isa Lake, which would require a 2 1/2 hour detour. Isa is a pond, really, covered in lilypads, and is the only natural lake in the world that drains into two oceans backward. It sits right on the continental divide, and the eastern outlet winds around to ultimately flow to the Pacific, while the western outlet winds to flow to the Atlantic Ocean. The lake was named for a pretty, rich young lady whom the discoverer happened to spot as he was trying to figure out a name for the place. Typical. (Hmph.)

Back to the driving. At both ends of the park I had to notice that we passed sheer drop-offs. Luckily, most of them seemed to be off the left side, and I was seated on the right. But for 20 minutes I had to cover my eyes because we were hanging over the side of the road on the right. There were no guard rails that I could see. A lady on the bus said thank goodness for that, because they'd probably mess up the view. !

Tom noted that snow guides were up, when they hadn't been the previous week. These are 6- or 8-foot poles with reflective tops that line the roads, and are to tell snow plows where the roads should be when the snow arrives. "Yes, it gets that deep," Tom told us.

Yellowstone isn't the most-visited US park, but it's #2 or #3. It gets MILLIONS of visitors a year, and the vast majority of them arrive during the three snow-less months. There were always crowds, but surprisingly, it was never too bad.

Get this: HALF of the entire WORLD's geothermal features are in Yellowstone!

We saw Yellowstone Falls, which are twice as high as Niagara. (It seems EVERYTHING's higher than Niagara! Niagara must have a great press agent. On the Canadian side.) When we got back from the photo stop, one of the women complained that she'd been trying to take a picture when two newly-arrived Japanese tourists DEMANDED that she move aside so they could shoot. I saw this happen a lot. Hey, aren't American tourists supposed to be the rude ones? Folks, always remember to be polite, especially when you're in large groups of tourists!

Then we went through the Lamar Valley, where it was bison mating season. Dozens and dozens of bison! They seemed just to be hanging around. Getting that final cigarette in, you know. We spotted one that people said was dead (he could have been asleep for all I knew), and we surmised that he had given his all in mating. The next week would be the beginning of elk mating season, and the valley would be filled with them, or so we were told. I noticed that the bison usually chose to appear nearby on the opposite side of the bus from where I was. (Okay, the next day they chose my side so I got some neat pics of them, but these pics have the picturesque river in them.)
Note: Tom said it is illegal to pull over and stop in the park unless an animal is actually blocking your way. (Traffic slows to a snail's pace when drivers detect wildlife to be seen/photographed. You see slowed traffic ahead; you start to look around for what they're gawking at.) He said that one herd of bison had been using a highway pass as a shortcut the previous week, and traffic had been held up for hours in either direction, affecting almost all the park's schedules. If you do get a traffic ticket in the park, be aware that this is federal property, and thus fines are MUCH higher than state fines would be. (Don't worry about pulling off too much, as there are a lot of "photo opportunity" pull-offs.)

Things smoke in Yellowstone. You can't take in a vista without seeing a cloud of steam rising somewhere. There are mud pots and hot springs and geysers, etc. This one above happens to roar like a dragon as the steam comes out of it. Plus our guide told us that with all the small earthquakes Yellowstone produces (since it does sit on top of a super volcano, and the main part of the Park sits within the old caldera), the fissures that allow all the geothermal activity can shift around. Huge, periodic geysers have been shut off by Mother Nature, like the Excelsior Geyser. Roads have had to have been moved because a hot spot shifted and melted the pavement. We heard of one night when park employees were skinny-dipping in a warm natural pool in the moonlight, and Yellowstone had a fairly large earthquake. The pool emptied in moments, leaving them sitting there in their altogether!

(Which reminds me: if you're visiting Yellowstone on your own, take advantage of the tours that are offered by knowledgeable guides. Some of them last all day, and you ride around in vintage vehicles. You'll learn a lot more than you would on your own.)

One of the things that surprised me was that in this huge park, which has so very many visitors, the visitor center we went to had very few displays that functioned properly. You pushed the button for the little show, and nothing happened. I think only two of the displays were functioning. How disappointing! Especially since most of the displays were about super volcanoes! Yeek! (I noted that predicted ash from the next big blowup would NOT directly affect Portland, OR, which is high on my retirement possibilities list. Mt. St. Helens was also on the map, and I noted that ash patterns went east, not west. Whew!) Super volcanoes are fascinating to study, but seriously frightening to consider.

We visited Yellowstone Lake, which is one of the larger lakes mumble mumble, I forget, but it's big. Okay, Wiki sez: "Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in North America." The hotel there (besides being our rest stop) was quite nice. A ship once sank in the middle of the lake, and there are tours that will take you out there to see it.

Then it was off to our accommodations for the next two nights: the Old Faithful Inn. Tom told us that a room cost around $400/night (wrong! It's just under that for 2 nights; I just looked it up), and that staying here took up the majority of the cost of our trip.

I might suggest staying elsewhere.

Sure, the decor of the main part of the hotel is colorful with all its timbers and huge fireplace, etc. But there's no wifi, radio or even TV, as they say they want to keep things rustic. (Okay, I think none of the accommodations in the park have these things.) The lobby is often filled with pandemonium: kids and tourists running, yelling, stopping suddenly, taking pictures…

We were put in the west wing, which is a more modern wing in that it has private bathrooms. I was wondering why the second floor in the main section had a public bathroom as I wandered down the hall one morning, when I realized it was the one the guests used. There were showers in the back (though not in the one on the first floor). At decent morning getting-ready-for-the-day times, it must be PACKED. The one time I used it, a woman brushing her teeth over one sink refused to let me get twenty seconds worth of water to wash my hands.

Let's see. Two showers, three stalls, two sinks, a BUNCH of guests wanting to use same...

But I had a private bath. When you turned on the bathroom light, the fan came on as well, sounding like a semi truck idling. The ice machine across the hall was a trifle quieter. My mattress was lumpy, you couldn't control the temperature in the room (even with the window open and temps approaching the 30s outside, it was stifling!), and the light bulbs were about 10W. I had to go down to the desk to ask for a reading lamp, which was supposed to have been there already. The tub was incredibly slippery. It had a grab bar at the opposite end of where you needed it, and there was no traction or mat in the thing. I showered as quickly as I could, fearing for my very life!

"Rustic" is one thing, but...

We were told that the inn's restaurant was booked 9 months in advance, but that Tom (the self-proclaimed greatest tour director in the world) had booked tables for us that far ahead, as he did for all his tours. So I tried it out. They have a limited menu and I ordered the bison pot roast and roasted root veggies with a salad, because I didn't trust the other items on the menu to be all that fresh. Yes, I'm paranoid. The salad never arrived, but it didn't show up on the bill, either. The couple I ate with were really, really picky (yes, pickier than me!), so in this expensive restaurant with its fancy food the woman finally settled on only the pea soup. She bullied her husband into the same thing (but he had a sundae as dessert once he saw I was ordering the same. He had the large; I had the small.). Then she complained about the color of the soup. That they didn't get more crackers. That the prices were so high (hey, lady, we had a chance to look over the menu before accepting our reservations, and the prices were on it), that the restaurant was so noisy. (It was. You couldn't hear yourself think!) (I saw a review on Travelocity the other day that came to the same conclusions and said the restaurant at the Snow Lodge was by far a better choice.)

(We had a number of couples where the wives seemed to direct their husbands' actions, and the men let themselves be led. Otherwise I don't think they could have fed themselves, looked in the proper direction, or whatever. Is this a matter of couples' pairing personality-wise, or it is age? The couples that were like this were very old.)

And of course the next day—which thank GOD was our "free afternoon"—the dinner hit me like a cannon. It didn't help that I'd just finished my final round of pills the day before. I ran to my room and its private bathroom and UGH! was sick for most of the afternoon. Seriously sick. I had scheduled to do my laundry that afternoon (over at the Snow Lodge, which is one of the two other hotels in that location. The Snow Lodge also has wifi available for a price in its lobby), and found the public rest rooms over there. My apologies, Snow Lodge guests. By the time laundry was done my GI tract was feeling faintly human again. After some ice cream at a local shoppe, it said it might be ready for dinner in a couple hours.

Note: bring your own laundry supplies. The laundry room was out of everything, and the manager and staff were frantic and embarrassed by the oversight. (Of course I'd brought my own.)

Dinner that night was at the deli in the Inn, with pre-made food. DEE-licious! I had the ham 'n cheese croissant, serious yum!, with a pre-made salad. Later I talked with the people behind the coffee bar on the second floor, and the one confided that once he got back to civilization, it took about two weeks for the sulfur smell to come off. "My friends tell me I smell like sulfur," he said. "Do I really?"

"Probably." That morning at our breakfast buffet I'd taken my plate back to my table and was all set to dig into what looked like delicious fare. But one sniff and all I could smell was sulfur. (I'm allergic to sulfa. Could that have played into my illness?) (Ah. Google says it's impossible for a human being to have an allergy to sulfur.)

That night I joined some others in our group on the extensive balcony that faces Old Faithful. During the day, people sit on the east-facing benches there and watch. I noticed that quite a few (Americans, not Japanese) spread their junk all over the benches so others couldn't sit there. "My husband's coming back any minute," they'd say, and you never saw any husband. They just didn't want to sit next to strangers.

When I got back to my room I recalled that I'd wanted to stargaze here since there'd be no city lights. I peeked out my window for an advance view and saw… Bats. Lots and lots of bats, careening everywhere just inches right outside my window. It was an omen! There'd be no stargazing. Brr!

But the hotel's main draw is that it's right next to Old Faithful. It has clocks in the lobby that tell you when the next scheduled eruption is, and you add and subtract 10 minutes to that, because OF doesn't run on any clock. It's just approximately every 90 minutes.

 We'd noticed the crowds gathering when we'd first arrived, and I got to the main viewing spot just as OF took off. Wow! Then later I just happened to be strolling about, noticed the crowds, and meandered over just in time. Finally I caught it at sunset, with the last rays of the sun catching just the top of the steam cloud.
The next day dawned, well, not exactly foggy, but clouds were lying on top of the trees. Guess that's fog. Okay, it was foggy, and added to the general steaminess of Yellowstone, things were pretty pea-soup. We visited a number of geothermal features, almost feeling our way along the boardwalks. We discovered that when pools are a lovely shade of blue, that means the water is too hot to support any life. When you see other colors, the water is still darned hot, but certain algae can live in it.

Ah! The clouds lifted around noon to make a beautiful day! And just in time to see Gibbon Falls, which falls over the rim of Yellowstone into its caldera. Gorgeous! I took a million pictures; let's see how many paintings I can get out of them.

Yellowstone: Beautiful landscapes. Mysterious and sometimes frightening landscapes. We didn't see that much wildlife, but I'm told that lots of people do. It's the luck of the draw of which week you get there.

Next time: the rest of the trip: Grand Tetons! Jackson! Salt Lake City! Casper, WY! And even Denver!