Tag Archive: Road trip


RoadTrip12

After half a dozen trips across the West, I decided these travels need their own blog.

I do not hail from the West, but rather, the Midwest.  I fled to the coast as many do for work.  But as the West Coast explodes with housing and business development, I find myself driving away from the tower cranes, burgeoning condos, metastatic housing development. I live in a farming area, a river valley, surrounded by increasingly lush vegetation and rich wildlife.  But increasingly, it’s not far enough away.

So a couple times a year, I head east, letting the scenery fly by as I unwind behind the wheel on the interstate.  I end up in Montana or Wyoming, looking for wildlife, public access, open space, few people. I get to unwind, mull over my life, think about future adventures. Each trip, I travel a little farther, and disappear a little more.

These journeys need their own place to live.  To follow them, visit https://larkeyskip.wordpress.com/.

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This is what I do when it gets dreary at home in the winter:  go through my trip photos from the last year, and plan my trips for next year.  It’s a damp, chilly sub-freezing evening that went dark at 4 p.m., and I’m sneezing. In other words, time to spend time bundled up with cups of ginger tea looking back and forward to adventures.

On a September road trip to Montana, I took a day to go to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on the advice of a coworker.  She is as much a student of nature and wildlife as I am.  She has a niece in West Yellowstone who drove her to Red Rock Lakes NWR about a month earlier.

It was an excuse to speed away from the madding crowd. I needed the break from Yellowstone National Park, which I love and support but grieve over as it becomes overrun. The drive to Lakeview was a trek:  50 miles of gravel roads winding from Henry’s Lake over Red Rock Pass by Mt. Jefferson before dropping into the Centennial valley.  The drive was first an adventure in elk avoidance, followed by swerving to avoid barreling trucks loaded with logs from a fire prevention project in the refuge.

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Elk crossing the road by Henry’s Lake

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Elk that ran across the road on the mountain, running i nto the woods

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Logging truck coming down the more benign South Valley Road

I unwound on the lovely and wonderfully lonely drive. The road was lit up by groves of aspens that glow different hues of gold depending on how the light falls. I wanted to stop everywhere to take pictures of fall colors we never see at home, but, well- logging trucks. Enough said.

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In Lakeview, I wandered around the refuge headquarters, which were closed since the rangers were in the field. I read signs and chatted a bit with a maintenance person. We lamented house prices in my area, where his kids live.  Way too high, but property was also too expensive around Lakeview, he said.  A recreational lot was for sale for $87,000.  That much, and only 3 acres! He was shocked.  I was, too, because you need a snowmobile to get there in winter.  And spring brings snowmelt and swampy roads.  So you’re using that lot from May to September-ish.

I walked the Sparrow Ponds Trail, despite a recent griz warning.  The refuge worker told me the bruins lurk in the willows if they’re around.  This one wasn’t, nor was much else except for birds.  I wanted to see a moose, but got there too late in the day, he said.

The waterfowl were having nothing to do with me. I tried being sneaky, but a great paddling of wings greeted me as they fled across the lake.  I sat huddled on a dirt mound by the shore in the cold wind for as long as I could stand it.

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Two trumpeter swans, at a very great distance

Then I moseyed on toward Lower Red Rock Lake.  I traveled past the road to the lake out of curiosity, and came upon a little homestead cemetery. I gingerly opened the chain and walked in.  The sign is defiant, protective of the crumbling headstones and resentful of the refuge, a last stand to respect the people who clung to a tough, hardscrabble way of life.

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The last person was buried before I was born. No one really lived that long except Mr. Shambow, the last to be laid to rest here.  Maude, perhaps his daughter, breathed air for only nine days. If there was a Mrs. Shambow, she’s not buried here; perhaps the tragedy of losing an infant drove her away from this place.

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It’s not clear whose headstone this is, but the farewell is resigned, a drop of the hands to the sides. The words convey exhaustion, defeat by a rough land and rough weather.

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redrockscampgroundAfter visiting the windswept cemetery with its oblivious gophers heaving the hallowed earth into mounds, I drove to Lower Red Rocks Lake campground. The gates and the signage speak to the neighbors and their manners.

 

There was no one at the campground, perhaps because it was so exposed.  The upper campground looked full as I passed.  I tip my hat to the National Wildlife Refuge System for installing a handicapped-accessible site in the middle of pretty much nowhere.

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This area, from my perusal of the Web, is a good one to photograph pronghorn antelopes.  The fastest of North American land mammals, they evolved anatomy and physiology to escape long-extinct cheetahs.  The bounding gate, large eyes with 320-degree view, and rump flagging must still be serving them well still- as long as the predator isn’t carrying a firearm with bullets that travel faster than they can run.

redrocksswansI wandered around the campground, took swan pictures rendered fuzzy by heat waves, and then escaped the wind in my car.  I pulled out to the entry road to eat lunch from the shelter of my vehicle, taking photos of the pronghorns.  I thought I might hike Odell Creek trail on the way back, but it was closed for the logging operation, so I wandered back slowly to West Yellowstone, stopping while cowboys moved cattle to winter grounds.

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I wish I had camped, really, instead of coming for the day.  I could have wandered among the aspens, waited until the rangers returned to the office to browse through exhibits and skins and feathers, watched for moose in the cold early morning.  But I needed to get back to my motel whether I liked it or not because my gear was there, along with my food.  Next time I will linger.  No more town life.  Not next time.

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Driving it off

Okay, this wasn’t a crazy road trip like some.  I’m not Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove for days to allegedly kidnap and/or murder a romantic rival.  We’re the same age, but- well, we have slightly different priorities in life.

What we have in common is the marathon drive instinct, she for a much more exciting reason. Despite a summer torn apart by too much work, I was determined to co-present at the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association annual conference in Bend, Oregon. I couldn’t attend the whole 4-day conference, so I would drive down one day, give my presentation, and drive back.

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Sure, this wasn’t an audition for a shot at fortune and fame, but it meant something to me.  It meant telling the story of surviving- and succeeding at- a project shot full of wild and whacky stories.  At one point, an agency peer emailed only a subject line: “You will get a call about a dead whale.” I wasn’t fazed. After the endless carnival that proceeded that email, no big deal.  A dead whale. Next crazy card in the spinning Rolodex.

I wouldn’t include the suicide in my presentation.  That was too hard and too personal.  It’s not the first time by far I’ve been a bystander, a stranger and witness to someone else’s tragedy, and it cut deep.  “Why me again?” ran through my mind for as long as I could hear the man’s voice in my ears: a voice hesitant and soft, no longer demanding. His voice asking about my life and my future.  Only a few days later, I understood the changed tone, the questions about a tomorrow that he would never see.

I almost quit then, but remember, I’m the boring one, not the one who makes hell-bent-for-leather road trips to stalk a competitor in a high stakes romance. I soldiered on, hollow inside, until the voice faded,  and then dutifully filed all his correspondence for the project record.

No, my road trip was a day driving myself numb through white knuckle weather, sheeting rain and road spray obscuring big rigs that would suddenly emerge dark, huge, and very close.  Bands of blinding sun streaming in from the west would puncture the storm clouds to turn the spray waves from speeding trucks into eye-burning glare. The parade of semis and monsoon clouds cleared as I drove east over the mountains, but then the road started to twist and wind around itself.

Finally, I dropped into eastern Oregon, much like eastern Washington: out of the storms that stall over mountains and into expansive and sunny drylands spinning away from me.  I relaxed, but felt oddly anxious and disappointed, because I couldn’t keep driving.  What I usually do on road trips is keep going, camping and staying in motels for the occasional shower, unwinding and forgetting who I am, day after day.  Long road trips are in my genes. This was only one day.

bridgesOregon has few wayside rests, so I was relieved to find Peter Skene Ogden Viewpoint.  After hours of focused driving, I needed to stop looking at a road whipping past.  I needed to walk.  I immediately encountered the most disturbing warning sign I’ve seen yet, before the overlook that has killed “many dogs”, graceful retired bridge, and a historical kiosk. Looking over the cliff, I could almost hear the barking of ghost dogs.cliffsign

The conference presentation went well, as expected.  Unlike many who rank public speaking right below disease and divorce on the Agony Scale, I enjoy it. I attended the rest of the last day, which ended at noon.  I had decided to stray east a little more and visit the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds.  I didn’t have my good camera- I’d stupidly put my hand on it at home, then decided it would just disappoint me not to keep traveling and really use it. But I had a phone, and it would do.

The excursion would add several hours onto my trip home, but it would let me stretch the down time a little.  As I was driving through Bend, a project member called because a reporter needed something.  Patching through meant sitting in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant on one phone call after the next, with people staring at me like I might be a jilted and deranged lover, or a woman on the verge of divorce.

Over an hour passed before it was settled, and I should have driven straight home.  I should have done the sensible thing, but I just couldn’t.  I drove east away from the busy Redmond/Bend corridor down a wonderful lonely road to John Day.  As expected, almost no one was there- me, and of course, a couple other guys by themselves.  It’s always that way for me.  I walked every trail I could find, knowing it was foolish and the time was passing, but lured on by the scent of juniper and sage, and color and rocks and fossils.

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The rest of the drive home was just plain long, and sometimes hard.  I didn’t realize the road that drops to the John Day was designed by a crazy, drunken miner for impatient, balletic mules- or something like that.  It felt like those car commercials where a stunt driver demonstrates power and control you will never need crawling in city traffic. With dusk settling, little deer herds everywhere tried to kill me and themselves by leaping forcefully into the roadway on hairpin turns.

People in Oregon are wildly friendly compared to Washingtonians, making you feel like a vulnerable and paranoid refugee.  They pump your gas in Oregon, so you have to remember to smile, and not to hide your wallet as if the guy approaching you wants to cop a five or rob you.

The smiling, cheerful lady at the gas station took me on a tour of the candy and energy bars, and even celebrated my purchase of a gooey-sweet mocha from the coffee machine and a bunch of bad chocolate.  She gave me a complimentary extra candy bar for the drive home. That sugar and caffeine helped when I hit rain at dark crossing the Columbia River Gorge and drove the rest of the way through increasing downpour as the clock ticked toward midnight.

Finally, I reached home.  I crawled into bed and curled up under soft, thick blankets, waiting for the feeling of motion to fade.  I wasn’t in custody, ragged and running on adrenaline, with that chewed up, wild-eyed realization that my little adventure had changed my life forever.  No, I was home, quiet, with a sprig of fragrant juniper on the nightstand as I drifted off to sleep listening to the soft hooting of a great-horned owl, with red-streaked hills in my dreams.ph3

 

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Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole.   I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps  a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.

What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths.  Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians.  Their hunting life may have been equally short.

Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.

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Diorama of a buffalo jump

The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination.  I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.

Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs:  one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below.  The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below.  The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.

It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.

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And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.

Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.

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From a park sign

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Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view.  You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd.  Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily.  They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.

And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen.  Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede.  Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over.  As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand.  You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you.  You hear the thuds below.

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It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired.  The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline.  Maybe some would be injured.  Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.

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I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind.  A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away.  The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.

These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer.  I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.

But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back.  I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps.  I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip.  I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head.  It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.

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Resting buffalo head rock- you see it, right?

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This has to have been a ritual stage- I would make it one, anyway

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Blessed to see some fresh fall flowers…

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But the faded ones have their own rich beauty.

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These rocks look like they calved from the cliff and tumbled in a line down a ravine, but they’re so- well, orderly.  Your mind starts to see the imprint of ghosts everywhere.

 

 

 

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Elk and bison feeding on dry grass in late fall along the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.

Even when you’ve been a veterinary student, a scientist, a pet and livestock owner- even then, and maybe especially then- it’s hard to watch animals suffer in the wild.  You should know better, right?  Animals live, animals die.  Even without the hazards humanity poses for wild animals, a host of potential killers lurks behind every rock and bush. Weather, predators, disease, childbirth, battles with competitors, broken bones, rotten teeth, wildfire, and the list goes on.

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We always want to see them cross to the other side of winter and make it to spring

My trip to Montana coincided with the cooling fall winter that heralds subzero temperatures and snow to come.  Winter drops a curtain between the robust and the weakened or just weaned.  On one side of the curtain, animals move on into the next spring. On the other, they become food for everything from insects and mice to birds, wolves, and bears.

In Yellowstone National Park, I saw for the first time in several trips young bison calves in late fall.  I have a pasture-bred horse that was born late August in Idaho, which isn’t optimal.  His mother likely “threw” the first fetus and rebred too late the previous year.  He made it, and is 20 years old now, but these young bison calves may not. They will  not benefit from human intervention in the way that my horse did.

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This frost isn’t a spring morning, but late September- a bad time for a little red calf to be puttling on weight.

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This calf isn’t far behind the one above, just shedding the last of the baby fur.

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This calf is taller, older, and in good weight.  It still may not survive, but has a better chance.

On a trip to Red Rock Lakes Refuge, I found a decent herd of pronghorn antelope leaping around the grasslands crossed by the road.  When one that was lying down stood, I gasped to see its condition- no body fat, and a withdrawn look that says the animal is giving up and preparing to die.

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Protruding bones and sunken eyes- it just hurts to see it.

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Healthy animals that will be able to cope with winter.

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At a pullout on the Madison River, a crowd of us watched this young elk cow lying in the grass, seemingly contented to chew her cud while other cows browsed nearby.

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The cow occastionally made a peculiar, grimacing expression.

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When she stood to eat, it became apparent that she’s walking on a very tender hind foot. This could make her vulnerable to predators, getting bogged down in snow, or reducing her ability to keep her weight up.

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These elk look healthy, but the young one on left kept fighting to follow the herd, getting caught in barbed wire cattle fencing.  Elk calves can get hung up in fencing and struggle to death within 15 minutes according to a USFWS Refuge ranger. 

Something different happens when we’re out wildlife watching.  We want to see animals frolicking wild and free in nature.  We want to feel hope for wildlife.  It’s hard to watch suffering and death.  Maybe the sympathy we want to feel for the sometimes hateful human race gets subverted as we gaze on sick and injured animals.  Maybe it’s the same gut-wrenching sadness we feel when children, the elderly, and disabled people suffer.

At least with wildlife, we can take comfort knowing that there is a circle of life.  The emaciated pronghorn will feed the food chain.  Wolves and bears may survive the winter on bison too young and too old to make it through.  It’s not the end: the rest of the herd, and the beneficiaries of death will make it through to the other side.

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After speeding away to a special assignment that includes social media, my life and my blog have been left in a dust cloud, pressed flat in the gravel like dehydrated roadkill. I worked my old job and my new job for five weeks until my work got transferred. Days never really ended. I forgot things. I needed everything to slow down.  I needed a break.

And there is the crazy, polarizing presidential campaign, the racism nightmare, terrorism. The national stress level is crushing on top of too little sleep/too much work.

Thankfully, I had long ago set up a trip to Montana to visit American Prairie Reserve and Yellowstone National Park.  After the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, I wanted to visit some refuges to – you know, take public land back.  Back from those cowboy hat Trojan horses funded by the resource extraction industries. The next few posts are about this trip.

What with my work-squashed neurons, I did a marginal job packing, and had to fill in a few things at Missoula.  Mostly, I had enough or maybe a little much.  Why I brought 3 pounds of cheese is a mystery. Simple math and consideration of cheese’s gastrointestinal effects would have fixed that.

I relax driving long distances and watching scenery slide by.  It’s meditation for a former Midwestern road tripper. By the time I reached Buffalo Camp at APR’s Sun Prairie unit, my brain had emptied, and I’d heard enough farm radio to forget about the world.  And I agreed with the greeting on the sign.  It was good.

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On cue, the Welcome Wagon bison showed me the location of my tent platform.  I didn’t ask him to stay and fluff my camp pillow, but he seemed willing to linger.

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Don’t worry- the deepest part is hidden on the left.

Of course, the first thing I decided to do was to cut my wrist with a knife.  Because too much crazy going on. For the first time in my knife-wielding life, I reached one hand over the other to grab something and neatly sliced my skin with the upward pointed tip.

The wound wasn’t terrible, though it was a bloody mess and will leave a scar.  It doesn’t really look like I tried to off myself:  I would get a D- for the effort. But if that tip had been 1/4 inch lower and an inch to the right- well, that would have been pretty dicey so far away from help. I’ve been there, long ago in northern Minnesota, with knee slices, broken ankle, appendicitis, and nearest medical care 45 miles away.  This one was easy, something pressure and gauze could fix once I decided to quit dripping blood on the tent and do something about it.

bridgebuffalocamptrailFinally, after setting up my temporary abode, I could stretch my legs walking out to the prairie dog town across the creek.  I could watch the prairie sunset and moonrise and curl up well-insulated in my sleeping bag, ready to start exploring the next day.

 

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The Harvest Moon is almost upon us…