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October 13, 2011
We got home last night from a ten day trip through western Colorado, The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. I'm glad to be home in Westcliffe again, but also really glad to have seen such beautiful places day after day this last week. My parents took me and my five siblings through Yellowstone when I was 8 (45 years ago). I didn't recognize a thing but it brought back some sweet memories: watching my father swim in a hot spring while the rest of us stood watching without the courage to jump in with him; a bear in our campsite and along the road - some of whcih I imagined to be grizzlies; the camper my parents rented with a window above the driving cab that the six of us could look out of as we drove through the park; a tent for my parents and brother, the five of us girls getting the tables that converted to beds inside the camper.
On our trip, my partner Brent and I thought we would camp but never did. Our first day in Yellowstone, we were forced to turn back because of snow. The roads were closed shortly thereafter and no one without chains on their tires was allowed in the park. Instead, we stayed at The Jackson Lake Lodge at the northern end of The Grand Teton National Park for two days until the roads opened up again. I liked being there a lot. The staff was young, upbeat and friendly. The lodge they'd been working in all summer was closing for the season so there was a lot of sadness as well as celebration shared amongst all of them and the few guests that remained, including us. Inside Yellowstone, we stayed first at the Old Faithful Inn where it was also the last night of the season. Winter was coming and it was time to board up the buildings to keep them safe from the wind and snow. Sunday night, we stayed further north at Mammoth Lodge 5 miles south of the North Entrance to the park and to border of Montana. Our most exciting adventures were there.
We arrived just after lunch and decided to take what we thought would be an easy 5 mile hike from the center of the lodge's campus. After we'd climbed the first uphill stretch, we found a trail marker that didn't match up with the info we'd gotten at the trailhead but which was close enough that we carried on. It was the first hike we'd taken without a pack with water, food, warm clothes or first aid thinking that we'd only be out for about 90 minutes. The hike was peaceful and not too demanding. We only ran into one other set of hikers - three young men who told us we'd walked about halfway and that the good parts were yet to come. That was 40 minutes into our hike. We were right on schedule. We found beaver ponds, elk skat and aspen groves along the way, as well as some really beautiful mountainside views. An hour later, we still weren't finished the walk and the sun was starting to go down. It was 5:00 and getting cooler and it was time to be heading towards dinner not hiking with no extra fleeces on hand. In a moment of panic that no hiker should ever allow, we decided to go off the path towards a road we could see far below us. We were in a valley that didn't look familiar and the only sign of life we could make sense of was a tiny stretch of road that we thought we could reach before the sun went down entirely. In our haste, we began to scurry down the side of the mountain, but the road we'd seen went out of sight as we descended. 30 minutes earlier we'd seen what we thought was our lodge to the north from an overhang along the path we'd been walking. When we saw it, we were surprised to be south of our destination, and more significantly, so far away from it. All of these observations had turned us around and confused us and suddenly we were lost and not sure how far we were from where we needed to be, or how we were going to get out before the day ended and it was truly cold (not to mention the thought of bear, mountain lion, and elk!) We survived, obviously, but it was a tense way to end the day. We walked as fast as I've ever walked to get oursevles off the mountain and safely to what turned out to be the North Entrance of the park, about five miles away from our cabin at Mammoth Lodge.
We made lots of mistakes that hikers should never make and it was humbling to say the least: we didn't have supplies with us in an unfamiliar wilderness, we didn't have maps, we hadn't told anyone where we'd gone, and most importantly, we'd gone off the trail. We hadn't even looked at maps in advance to know that there was another town in our vicinity. When we saw buildings in the distance from the top of the mountain, we assumed they were Mammoth Lodge, our destination. Had we known that Gardiner, Montana was 5 miles north, we would have figured things out differently. When we finally got there, exhausted and a little bit desperate, the park ranger we found told us we'd have to hitchhike back to Mammoth. Naturally no one wanted to pick us up (it was getting dark, and perhaps our eyes looked crazed from being so distressed) but finally a young waittress picked us up and took us right to our door. We bought her and her family dinner just for having the courage to save us from our somewhat stupid selves. When we walked the path in reverse the next morning just to see what we'd done wrong, we discovered that we were only half a mile from our cabin when we scurried down the side of the mountain. If we'd taken the time to breathe and look at the very obvious landmarks, we would have had time for a hot tub before dinner instead of a manic hike over unfamiliar mountains to a town in Montana. Needless to say, we were humbled and reminded of all the things one should not do when they go out for a short walk in the Rocky Mountains.
The following day, we woke to a herd of elk comfortably camping out in the center of the guest cabins we were adjacent to. The strange thing was not the herd being there but the fact that there were three males instead of a single adult bull. The park employs an entire staff of men and women whose only job is to monitor the elk herds that rest from their predators in the middle of the lodge's guest facilities. Tourists get over-excited and do stupid things that can irritate an elk and cause them to charge. Silly me, I didn't know any of this as I skipped between the cabins to get a picture. I was immediately called back and scolded (gently) for being a ding bat. 10 minutes later, the senior bull went a little bonkers when a younger bull mounted one of the females. He let us all know that this was not ok. Elk the size of a minivan were running everywhere to get away from him. We were in our car by then and smack in the middle of the action. The bull came right up to our windshield as a famale stood a foot from my side of the car. I didn't want to scare her with my flash so I didn't take a picture, but I got a shot of the bull coming our way - calm by the time he got to us. Seeing them all scattering all over the place was thrilling to say the least. Things settled down very quickly - just another day in Yellowstone Park, but for us, it was something we weren't likely to see again in our lifetime.
I've written for long enough. I had all kinds of thoughts to share, all of which have escaped me. Maybe I'm tired; maybe I'm just wanting to talk about our trip. But I'm reminded as I sit outside with our dogs on this glorious fall day in central Colorado, that being home is really my favorite place to be. Going away is always good, but there's something about coming back that I love more than anything. The aspens here are glorious: yellow and shimmering in the light wind. Brent is off walking somewhere and our dog sitter and house guest, Wendy, is out running, believe it or not, with a burrow. I admire her. She takes life by the reins, literally in this case, and digs in. It's a good day and a good life. I'm glad to be where I am.
I hope it's beautiful where you are too.