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.

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