Bonfire Magic

“We have a bonfire every night,” Bob the proprietor of the Grizzly Lodge told us.  “People make friends for life there.”  I wasn’t sure sure about the “for life part” but I’m not one to miss a good blazing fire.

Rich and I were within yards of reaching the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The plan was to find a campsite in the park for the night, but when Rich saw the Vacancy sign on the lodge, he immediately turned into the drive.  His deteriorating health dictated better rest than sleeping outdoors on a thin inflatable pad.  Late in the season, we scored a tiny cabin right on the riverbank.

Rich barbecued out near the fire pit while I prepared the remainder of our camp meal in the cabin.  Already the bonfire was ablaze.  When Rich crashed and crawled under the colorful patchwork quilt on the soft double bed, I slipped outside.

Approaching the fire pit, I could just make out three couples and a young man seated on the quadrangle of logs.  I settled next to the couple on the nearest side.  Like me, they appeared to be in their 60s.  The man was tuning a guitar, clearly a borrowed instrument, muttering about its quality.  But when his fingers caressed the strings music unfurled.  His picking held the promise of a folk melody as the vibrating notes sang out over the flames.  Soon his gravelly voice took up the tune, with an oddly lyrical mix of breathy tones and vibrato.  His wife joined in, singing a quiet and alluring harmony, almost a haunting combination.  The language was foreign, adding to the mystique.  The impromptu performance continued, mostly his guitar and solo voice, always in his native tongue.  It was a magical moment.  I wanted it to go on forever.

Simon Chudnovski and Valentina Kharenko are originally from the Ukraine, and have lived in New York City for 20 years.  Both are accomplished musicians, and Simon had been invited to perform in Seattle.  Valentina, a pianist, would play as well.  They were taking their first long car trip in the US with their son, David.  Fulfilling one of David’s dreams, they were visiting as many western national parks as possible in three weeks.  Normally they camped and hiked each day, but that night they had allowed themselves a cabin and real beds.

David eagerly filled us in on their travels, their music and their lives.  The couple on the next log was from the Pennsylvania Dutch area, dressed in their traditional garb.  They asked Valentina if she spoke German, and the conversation continued in that language.  The Ukrainians took as much interest in each of us as we did in them, as we lingered by the fire.

I so wished Rich could be there.  I knew he would be as enchanted by the music as I was, as charmed by the experience.  I chatted with David as we wandered back to our cabins, and told him as much.  He insisted on stopping at his car so he could give me a CD of his father’s music.  And he gave me the name of Simon’s channel on YouTube.

I invite you to listen to his music.  You will have to imagine the heat of the fire, the glow on the faces surrounding the blaze, the crackle of the dry wood.  That music floating over the scene.  Bob joined us for a spell out there.  Said he’d never before experienced a bonfire like that one.  When magic happened.

Heavenly Performances in the Tetons

Sometimes nature’s best is just outside your window.  Such was the case in the Grand Tetons.

It pays to be married to a photographer.  Especially one with a passion for night time photography and the sun’s golden hours.  I may not be game for his all-night antics chasing the Aurora, but sunsets and sunrises I can handle.  And I have to admit, Rich does his homework.

Upon arriving at Jackson Lake Lodge, Rich quickly scouted the mountain views from the front of the lodge, his apps that detailed the exact location of sun movement, and the weather forecast.  He deemed it a perfect sunset opportunity.  We were poised and ready with our cameras and tripods well before the action began.  An darn if he wasn’t spot on!

Tetons sunset 1

Tetons Sunset 2

We spent a magical hour watching the pageantry of the receding sun, as it shot light rays from behind the mountains and spun color into the clouds overhead.  We knew it must be something special when we spotted numerous lodge staff members dashing outside to capture pictures of the display.

I could have been thoroughly satisfied with that experience.  But it was far from over.  I was informed that we had a full moon, and it was due to set over the mountains early the next morning.  It was a once-a-month phenomenon.  And we had the good fortune to see it.  So it was that I dragged my body out of bed in the dark and chill of pre-dawn the following morning.  And heck, that too was worth the effort!

Tetons moonset 1

Tetons moonset 2

It wasn’t long from the conclusion of that drama to the sun’s appearance, so we lingered for the final show.  Rising from behind, it slowly painted the mountaintops and slithered down the rocky slopes with pinky golden colors, ultimately meeting the mist rising from Jackson Lake.

Tetons sunrise 1

Tetons sunrise 2

It was the perfect trifecta.  Three heavenly performances initiated our visit to the Grand Tetons.  And the view in broad daylight wasn’t half bad either.

Tetons panoramic view

Tetons’ Triumph

It’s not fair to play favorites. But I have to say that the Grand Tetons topped Yellowstone this time around. However, it wasn’t a level playing field.

While we were enamored with Yellowstone’s rich offerings, we were constantly on the go, traveling from place to place in order to see it all. We walked miles of boardwalks built to protect nature’s attractions and accommodate the large volume of visitors. We followed signs to scenic overlooks and followed well-worn paths. Throughout it all, we attempted to curtail our activities so as not to worsen Rich’s ill health. But we failed. His misery deepened as he spiraled down with pneumonia. Clearly our experience was tainted. I stopped myself short of buying a coffee mug, my favorite souvenir, emblazoned with a bear and the words Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t bring myself to burden Rich with bad karma each time he opened the cupboard.

In contrast, the Grand Tetons offered a respite. Through sheer luck, we secured four nights in Jackson Lake Lodge. The grand lobby with soaring windows overlooking the rocky mountain peaks and Jackson Lake offered daylong access to cushy couches and chairs for relaxing and absorbing the view. A coffee bar, restaurants and a bar/lounge were within mere steps. Knowing Rich’s condition, the staff ensured that our room was just a short distance away. It felt like a haven in the wilderness.
Tetons from Lobby window

But the real benefit was the nature of the park. The mountains, the lakes and the wildlife were the draw. The natural beauty to behold. There were no must-do sights compelling a visit. We could do as little (Rich) or as much (Molly) as we pleased. We had a central base from which we could explore, either together or separately.

Hiking alone is a consideration in bear country, so I limited myself to safer routes – still accompanied by bear spray. Taking the trail to Grand View Point afforded me views in two directions, out over Jackson Lake and the Tetons and overlooking Two Ocean Lake with forested crests on the other side.Tetons from Grand View PointTwo Ocean Lake from Grand View Point

Naturally, Rich ventured out in search of birds and wildlife. I accompanied him to the Willow-Moose Road, where we found a pair of moose. We watched the bull for close to an hour, as he kept tabs on his cow moose. He was an expert at camouflaging himself behind bushes or branches that obscured our view, but we persevered and enjoyed the show. Oxbow Bend was another favorite, just a couple miles down the road from the lodge. Fall colors were in full display against the backdrop of the Tetons, and it held the promise of bird and wildlife viewing.Moose in Tetons
Oxbow Bend

We found the Grand Tetons to be far more bicycle friendly than Yellowstone. The 20-mile long multi-use paved trail attracted my attention. I had my heart set on cycling it the full distance from Jenny Lake to Jackson and back again. Although it parallels the highway, I relished the safety of the path and the constant companionship of the mountains that flanked the route. I even experienced a cycling wildlife jam, when motorists stopped and flooded the path to photograph a herd of elk at close range.Bicycle trail in Tetons
Entry to Tetons

Rich tested his mettle on the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, a short one-way road with a bicycle lane. We cycled up and back, marveling at the blue-green waters of Jenny Lake. The sun dappled route on a warm afternoon was good medicine for both of us.

R biking Jenny LakeMR Jenny Lake

Some of the park roads had good wide shoulders, allowing us to cycle right from the lodge. A trip to the Colter Bay picnic area brought us right down to the lake and a rock beach. I ventured a little further to reach the National Park Service and University of Wyoming Research Station, a peaceful perch on the lake.
Jackson Lake research center

The Tetons afforded us a more relaxed pace and the ability to make plans at will.  And a chance for Rich to recuperate.  Even just hovering around the lodge environs was a treat. It’s not often we splurged like this. It was worth savoring.  And I bought my souvenir mug.  It says Grand Tetons National Park and has a moose on it.Jackson Lake and Tetons

Yellowstone’s Many Faces

Before this trip, Yellowstone National Park conjured up images of Old Faithful in my brain.  Snow in June and a rustic cabin.  That’s what I remember from visiting with my family in sixth grade.  Now I realize the injustice of that narrow memory.

Yellowstone is home to a wealth of unique natural wonders.  Despite its vast size, the distinct variety of sights found within its borders is astonishing.  Each of our five days brought something new.  Thankfully, our son Erik and his wife Katie visited Yellowstone just a month ahead of us, leaving us with tips on the best way to see the park.  And their bear spray.

We explored the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” – walking the north rim, hiking down to the brink of the Lower Falls and absorbing the rich colors of the deep canyon walls.

Molly at Yellowstone CanyonYellowstone Lower FallsYellowstone Canyon

Naturally, we paid a visit to Old Faithful.  But there was so much more to that geyser and hot spring haven.  I walked the geyser trail, marveling at the huge variety in size, shape, frequency and reliability of eruption.  The hot springs were especially appealing, particularly the brilliant blue of Morning Glory.

Rich photographing Old FaithfulArtemisia geyserMorning Glory hot spring

There was something magnetic about Grand Prismatic, especially when viewed from above at the overlook.

Molly overlooking Grand PrismaticRich next to Grand Prismatic

I wasn’t sure I needed to see Mammoth Hot Springs.  When we first arrived, I couldn’t see what was so great about them.  But after wandering among the terraces and land formations created by the hot springs, I had to admit I was impressed with nature’s artistry.

Mammoth Hot Springs 1Mammoth Hot Springs 2Mammoth Hot Springs 3

Even more than the famous sights, I was eager to get into the wilderness.  I wanted to hike down a trail, escape the crowds and lose myself in placing one foot in front of the other in quiet solitude.  Following Erik and Katie’s advice – and their footsteps – we hiked to Shoshone Lake, the largest backcountry lake in the lower 48 states.

Rich hiking to Shoshone LakeShoshone Lake in distanceMolly at Shoshone Lake

A visit to Yellowstone is synonymous with wildlife, and we saw our share of that as well.  Bison and elk were ubiquitous throughout the park.  I heard elk bugling in the woods for the first time.  Then it became commonplace, as it was rut season.  One evening, we were delayed getting to dinner due to a placid elk crossing our path.  A “wildlife jam” alerted us to the presence of two grizzly bears tearing into something tasty on the roadside.  We chose not to venture close enough to get a good picture of that scene.Yellowstone Bison Yellowstone Elk

I have replaced my Old Faithful image of Yellowstone with a collage.  My mind now holds a collection of sights and creations of nature, interspersed with immersion in the wilderness and wildlife views.  Just a few of Yellowstone’s many faces.

On to Plan C

Sometimes life intervenes.  Our revised plans to camp in our tent on our trip out west started out well enough.  We scored a nice campsite on the river in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, and managed to squeeze in a short bike ride on the wilderness loop after arriving.  A bison spent the night on the banks of the river just below our spot, and in the morning he took a stroll right through our campsite!  We decided to let him have it.

Rich in Teddy Roosevelt Park Molly cycling Teddy Roosevelt Park

On good advice, we drove the Beartooth Highway to enter Yellowstone.  Getting an early start, we were well down the road and into the mountains just as the sun began hitting the peaks.  It only got better from there.  The 68 miles took us a full three hours to cover, slowly winding our way around hairpin curves, ogling the views over the edge and stopping frequently to take in the scenery.  We hadn’t even gotten to the park yet and we were already enamored with the locale.

Rich Beartooth highway Beartooth Highway 1 Beartooth Highway 2

Traveling at the end of the season, we assumed that the crowds in Yellowstone had thinned.  But that wasn’t the case.  Even the campsites were still in high demand, so rather than moving around the park we snapped up four nights in the Canyon Valley campground, hastily making reservations en route.  Tall pine trees towered over our humble tent, needles carpeted the ground and plenty of space insulated us from other campers.  All seemed well.  But we only lasted two nights.

It wasn’t the thunder-snow that we heard rumbling and falling icily on our tent the first morning that drove us out.  In fact, we luxuriated in the excuse to hunker down reading in our cozy sleeping bags until it ceased.  It wasn’t the 25 degree temps the following morning.  It wasn’t even the meager camp meals that we concocted over our ancient sputtering cook-stove.

Yellowstone snowy campsiteYellowstone reading in tentYellowstone Molly in mummy bagYellowstone Molly cooking dinner

It was the bugs.  No, not the buzzing, biting, flying irritants that usually annoy campers.  Pink-eye and flu bugs.  Lingering gifts from a recent visit with our grandchildren took Rich down hard.  And each successive day he worsened.  No matter how cushy the air mattresses (and ours aren’t), there’s no pretending that we get a good night’s sleep on the ground.

Just as in bicycle touring, we instituted our trusty rule.  When someone gets sick, no more camping.  It’s the only way to get better.  But scuttling Plan B was not that easy.  Those late season crowds?  They filled the lodgings too.  After many phone calls, we scored a room in Grant Village that had just been released.  Wincing at the cost but celebrating our luck, we repeated the search in the Grand Tetons.

So much for our free-wheeling campervan plan.  Goodbye outdoorsy tent camping.  Hello Plan C – warm, inviting park lodgings with electricity and soft beds, secured with advance reservations.  I’m entirely certain that the park sights will still be stunning.

Molly Yellowstone sign

False Start

It seemed like a good idea at the time. In fact, it was.

We were off on an adventure. With a family wedding in Colorado at the end of September, we decided to use the preceding two weeks to drive out west and explore. Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons were on our list, but beyond that we had no real plan.

The unique element was traveling by campervan. We found a small start-up company in the Twin Cities that rents mini-van sized vehicles that seat two in the front and sleep two in the back. It would keep us out of the elements and provide a soft mattress for these aging bodies. It has a slide-out with one burner for cooking, spots for a water jug and a cooler, plus storage. Perfectly bare bones. It would give us the freedom to wander at will.

Rich and Molly w Campervan

It seemed the perfect solution. We talked it up to all our friends. They too were intrigued. I rather liked the thought of sleeping in a tin can in bear country. An added layer of protection. Rich fancied the idea of sidling up to the fancy RVs in a Walmart parking lot one night, just for kicks.

All went smoothly as we transferred bags and gear from our car to the campervan. We found space for everything – just barely – and hung our bikes on the rack in back. Giddily climbing into the front seat we set off.

Rich loading campervan Molly showing campervan storage

We were only three miles away, on the highway entrance ramp when it happened. The warning light went on and the engine heat soared into the red zone. Unwilling to drive it in that condition, we contacted the owner who arranged for his auto shop to take it right away. The 90-degree heat not only exacerbated the problem but singed our sagging spirits. Hot air blew through the open windows, cars sped by and the sun beat down relentlessly as we waited for the engine to cool. Only when it was well out of the danger zone would we putter down the road. Until it overheated again. This scenario repeated itself over and over again in the next two hours, just to get 12 miles.

The auto shop discovered an improperly connected coolant hose, and no coolant remaining in the system. No wonder it overheated. The van owner was there with fervent apologies and offers to help us pass the time during the repairs. Even in our misery, we felt for him.  It wasn’t his fault, he’d had the van serviced and inspected before he rented it to us.

But by then it was too late. Rich was spooked. A desperate conversation took place next to the van, in the stifling heat, sweating. Could we trust the van, after this issue? What if other trouble lurked? We were heading out to remote areas, thousands of miles from home. I struggled with letting go of our plans. Dropping the new experience just like that. But I have learned a thing or two in 35 years of marriage. I could tell that Rich would never relax in that van. It was time for Plan B.

Scratch the van. Retain the adventure. We would drive back to Duluth, pack up our tent, sleeping bags and camp stove and get a fresh start. Tomorrow.

It’s still a good idea.

Farewell my lighthouse

The last sunrise. A final morning walk on the beach. A concluding entry in my journal. It is the last of five days that I will repeat this early routine. I will miss this place.

As if to mark the occasion, sunrise is the most colorful of the week. I scamper to my favorite views to try and capture the image. Clouds light up from below as the sun advances up from the horizon.Crisp Point sunrise

My walk takes the pace of a stroll across nature’s canvas. Tottering over mounds of Lake Superior rocks, I leave no trace. When the charcoal, gray, pink and white mosaic gives way to sandy beach I smile. Here I can walk more steadily, stop concentrating on where I place my feet and look around. I could pick up my pace, but there is too much to see.

Molly walking beach at CPL

My footsteps from yesterday are still visible in places – a surprise on this windblown expanse. The afternoon’s visitors have also left their mark – bare feet, dog paws, a rock message composed on the sand. I wonder about the huge paw prints that walk alone, appear very recent. They could belong to a bear.

It’s nature’s traces that are the real attraction. My favorite are the fine lines that curve and intersect on the firm sand. They mark the perimeter of the waves’ advances. they tell the story of the water’s movement. A few days ago big waves drove high up the beach. Today they merely lap the edge. Black sand stretches add to the design, mingling colors.

Bird and critter tracks wind hither and yon though the sand. Drunken wanderings leave a fanciful path. Tiny feet press distinct prints. Animal friends join and leave. Explosions occasionally occur in the intersections of a crowd.

The wind too participates in this artwork. Symmetrical ripples linger across the sand. A lazy stream creates similar patterns under water, on its journey to the lake. It is all there for the visual taking.

The lake is quiet as my coffee and I settle down on my “writer’s log” on the beach. A light wind blows. Weak sunlight flows over my shoulders, tempered by broken clouds and remnants of wildfire smoke. The beach exudes calm.

My writing log

I don’t mind that it is not a sparkling blue day. This feels more relaxed. The air is that temperature that I don’t feel – it’s just there, comfortable. The day does not demand attention. It just is.

Soon the first visitors will arrive and I will resume my station in the Visitor Center for Crisp Point Lighthouse. During lulls in the day we will pack up our gear. Roll up the sleeping bags. Take down the tent. We will prepare to say our goodbyes to Crisp Point. For one more year.