Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Colorado to West Virginia


Rocky Mountain National Park turned out to be a slight bust. I had ambitions to climb Longs Peak and set up some nice early fall foliage shots up near Sky Pond but the late season weather shut me down pretty hard.

Up at 14,000ft, Park Rangers were reporting high winds, snow accumulation, and the formation of "verglas" - an icy glazing on rocks that's too thin for traction with crampons and too slick with boots alone. I had done plenty of climbing this summer and didn't want my final attempt to turn into a wintery epic. I contented myself with my previous accomplishments and therefore wasn't too disappointed that I wouldn't get my "14er." Wyoming's Fremont Peak (13,745ft) will likely be my personal altitude record for quite some time, maybe forever.

I did drive up to the high country on park roads to check out the alpine scenery and crested the Continental Divide at over 12,000ft. The winds buffeted my truck and made steering difficult. I watched clouds race overhead at warp speed. And I was glad I wasn't on top of Longs Peak.

The following day I got up early to hike to popular Sky Pond. I needn't have rushed; once I arrived in the parking lot it started pouring. I curled up on my bench seat and snoozed for another hour, waiting for a break in the rain. Which I technically got only because it stopped raining and instead started to snow. I hiked anyway. On the way to Sky Pond I passed a smaller body of water known as The Loch. The ferocious wind that blew in with the snow whipped up a steady barrage of whitecaps. The Loch was 100 yards long, only twice the length of an Olympic swimming pool and there were whitecaps! I was pretty cold and miserable, so I turned around without getting my pictures.

I finished my time around Rocky Mountain National Park down in the lower valleys where the weather was better. Elk bugling signaled the start of the mating season. I holed up in a coffee shop, reading for a down day in the small town of Estes Park, biding my time to drive to Denver to pick up Phil.

Phil is an yet another Coast Guard friend of mine and he offered to help me make the drive across the Great Plains back east. We spent the day of his arrival sampling Denver's beer scene and enjoyed a fine meal of bison and elk steaks at the Buckhorn Exchange, one of Colorado's oldest saloons and restaurants. They have the state's first liquor license on display!

A toast to Liquor License #1!  
Driving the Flyover

Leaving Denver I had a roundabout cross country trip in mind, designed to finish off my 50 States, of which I was missing Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Armed with Phil as a backup driver, endless music on my satellite radio, and copious coffee to keep us awake, I prepared for a long, boring drive. Turns out it was anything but! I realized that the Heartland is just as important to the American experience as any other place in the country and our stops along the way proved to be some of the most unexpectedly enjoyable sights of the entire trip.

In Nebraska we drove east along part of the historic Oregon Trail, passing the distinctive form of Chimney Rock. It was cool to see the famous landmark that features so prominently into the game I played often in my elementary school days. Thankfully this time nobody caught cholera and I didn't lose an axle while crossing the Platte River.

The remainder of the long drive thru Nebraska was fairly uneventful (lots of corn) but we did stumble upon some of those super tacky cliched tourist traps.


Entering Kansas, we were only a short detour away from the Geographical Center of the 48 States. The Heart of the Heartland. We had to stop.

Kansas impressed me with its subtle aesthetics. A local author aptly described it thus: "mountains and oceans shout an easy beauty, the prairie only whispers." Phil and I took a seven mile hike thru Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of the few places left in the Great Plains that never felt the plow of farm or development, to listen to the whispers.

Bison are an integral part of a healthy prairie ecosystem
Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas
An old one room schoolhouse at the edge of the Preserve
The pleasant surprises in Kansas kept coming. A local space-nerd philanthropist turned a museum in Hutchinson into the best aeronautical exhibit outside the Smithsonian Air and Space, and the largest collection of Russian space capsules in the Western Hemisphere. With such a good display of Soviet technology it was easier to understand the back and forth of the Cold War space race, from its Nazi V-2 origins to the early Russian success and the final American lunar triumphs.

A full SR71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever built. If they even tried to put machine guns on this thing, it would fly into its own bullets!!!

We spent so long on our day in Kansas that we didn't make it all the way to our planned overnight in Oklahoma City. Phil did find a great little town to spend the night, Guthrie, OK. Guthrie was Oklahoma's first state capitol, before it was "stolen" by Oklahoma City (they still don't seem over it). As such, Guthrie caught a wave of early development in the late 1800s and then everything just stopped, leaving a downtown full of well preserved Victorian style buildings and architecture. In the morning we grabbed coffee and just strolled around before finishing the drive to OK City.

Holding a grudge after all these years? 
Our time in Oklahoma City was spent exploring the rich cowboy history of the area. The city boasts an excellent Museum of the American Cowboy and Western Heritage with terrific exhibits on ranching, rodeo, western clothing & style, weapons, frontier life, and Hollywood's love affair with cowboys and Indians. Downtown in "Stockyard City" they still auction off live cattle in the streets, which you can then eat as a delicious steak at places like Cattleman's Restaurant. After lunch, I did some shopping in the western stores.

General Custer actually had two Gatling Guns at his disposal. He left them back at his fort for the Battle at Little Bighorn. I wonder if he regretted that? 
The moving sculpture "End of Trail." Sympathetic to the plight of the Native American or lauding the supremacy of white dudes? You decide. 
Cattleman's Restaurant uses the brand "33" on all their stock. Back in the 40s, Cattleman's changed hands in a high stakes game of dice when a "hard six," two threes, was rolled. 
We left Oklahoma and headed east toward my final state, Arkansas. We chose to get off the interstate and take a more scenic backroad that would have a good place to pull over on the border. As luck and fortune would have it, we couldn't have picked a better spot - a "state line" bar straddled the border between OK and AR. I entered the establishment thru the door of my 49th state, drank a beer somewhere in the middle to celebrate my travels with Phil, and came out on the Arkansas side of things, having finished my quest to see all of America.

America is awesome! 
And so is this state line bar on US 270! 
The celebrations continued the following morning in Hot Springs National Park. I treated myself to a vintage spa treatment, the same as the visitors to the park enjoyed in 1912. "Taking the waters" includes a hot mineral bath, steam room, towel wrap, cold shower, and plenty of drinking the "restorative" water. Squeaky clean and relaxed, Phil and I grabbed some of Arkansas' best BBQ at McClards. Best ribs of my life.

Legend has it that President Clinton (born in Hot Springs, AR) would have McClards ribs brought out to Air Force One whenever he was passing thru.
Tennessee & Home

Tennessee wasn't new ground for me, but it sure made a nice finale to my 2015 travels. Phil and I checked out the blues scene in Memphis before continuing across the state to Nashville, spending my final night on the road in one of my favorite places for a night out on the town.

Good, cheap(ish) digs right downtown.
Watch out ladies! Cowboy boots and pearl snap I picked up in Oklahoma. 
Just over three months, 14,000 miles, and a lifetime a memories later I returned to my favorite of the 50 States. I'm exactly where I hoped I'd be when I left the Coast Guard in May 2014. I took control of my life, crossed dozens of the biggest items from my bucket list, took the time to figure out the next steps, saw the entirety of this great country we call home, snapped some great photos, earned some good stories, learned and experienced more than I could have ever imagined, and have no "what if" regrets.

I may be done with the adventure of the open road for the time being, but I'm excited for the adventure of grad school, a new career, family, new friends, and embracing fun a little closer to home. Thanks so much to everyone along the way for such a great year and helping me thru my travels and transitions. Keep in touch.

Country Roads Takin' me Home (ok, it's I-64, but still) 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wyoming - Part 2

The second half of my time in Wyoming eclipsed that of my first. Epic adventuring, good weather, and beautiful scenery forever secured a place for The Equality State in my top favorites.

From Jackson, Grand Teton National Park is just a short drive to the north. I didn't have a climbing partner for this phase of the trip, so I settled on a fun scramble up Teewinot Mountain in lieu of a climb of the Grand itself. It was way less crowded to boot! I set off at 0330, intending to beat any potential afternoon storms. I tried to pace myself for the 5,600ft climb, but the last month living at higher altitude and all of my climbing thus far had left me in better shape than I expected. I hiked much faster than I planned on and had to don all of my extra layers and huddle in the lee of a boulder for 45 minutes waiting for first light so I could better find my way through the tricky part instead of relying on my headlamp alone. Good views of the Grand Teton from the airy and exposed summit.

The Grand Teton from Teewinot
Good morning Jackson Hole! 
I waited out a one day storm reading a book in the massive lobby of the Jackson Lake Lodge, enjoying a cup of coffee, sandwiched between a roaring fireplace and enormous picture windows that (in clear weather) have great views of the mountains.

The storm cleared that night and I got up super early the following morning to capture some sunrise shots that I had scouted a few days prior, just waiting for the right conditions. Hard to beat a crisp, clear morning with a cup of coffee in hand, watching the alpenglow move from the tips of the summits down the mountains into the valley.

Tetons from Schwabacher's Landing

A few hours later I floated this portion of the Snake River
After my photo extravaganza, I packed up my paddling gear and hitchhiked north along the highway to the Pacific Creek tributary of the mighty Snake River. A few minutes later I was floating back to my truck in my packraft, enjoying a Class II paddle with great views beneath the Teton Range. As the afternoon progressed I had to buck an ever increasing headwind, turning my leisurely trip into a solid workout. My little raft turned the heads of guides and fisherman and was quite the conversation piece at the takeout.

Teton adventuring complete, I picked up Coast Guard buddy Tim Ozimek from Jackson. I had done some of my very first mountain climbing with Tim and his dad when we were stationed together in Washington. Tim has since transferred to DC and I was able to stay out in the Northwest, gaining enough experience to start leading the climbing trips myself. We planned a weeklong trip in the southern part of the Wind River Range, climbing in some of the most picturesque places in the country but hoping to avoid the notorious crowds with our post-Labor Day timing.

Wayward calves creating a Wyoming traffic jam
From Big Sandy Trailhead, we hiked past Shadow Lake and across the Continental Divide at Texas Pass, a "backdoor" into the Cirque of the Towers, our first destination. One of my favorite former NOLS instructors was leading a course in the Winds and before he left we made plans over a beer in Lander to meet up in the Cirque. I found Logan napping in the sun, resting after leading some hard climbing with students. We caught up over tea and cake, baked over a backcountry stove.

Tim crossing the Continental Divide at Texas Pass
NOLS pressed on in the morning and Tim and I had climbing to do ourselves. We choose Pingora, an aesthetic round spire of granite. Our East Ledges route (5.2) was warmed by the morning sun and we made quick work of the fun route. Pingora is one of the most popular mountains in Wyoming but our timing seemed to pay off - we had the mountain entirely to ourselves until our very last rappel!

Pingora, 11,883ft
Tim on the East Ledges
Tim making the final approach to the summit. Lonesome Lake beyond.
The Cirque of the Towers from the summit of Pingora
Descending the South Buttress
We were back in camp by early afternoon, napping and playing cribbage. The next day we broke camp early to position ourselves atop Jackass Pass (Continental Divide crossing #2) for good morning photographs back down into the Cirque.

Warbonnet Peak lords over Tim's shadow and the top of Jackass Pass
The entirety of the Cirque of the Towers from Jackass Pass
We then booked it 6 miles into Deep Lake Cirque, dominated by the imposing north face of East Temple Peak, one of the most beautiful mountains I've ever seen.

Deep Lake Cirque and East Temple Peak
Fortunately, one does not have to climb the sheer face to the top; a climb along the righthand ridge system is more casual. Views from the summit of East Temple Peak were amazing, encompassing the plains and basins on either side of the Wind River Range, the bulk of the Range itself stretching away to the northwest with the glaciated summits of Fremont Peak and Gannett Peak (the Wind's highest) just visible on the horizon. In the lower valleys you could see the beginning of fall with the aspen turning yellow contrasted with the drab and dead white pine forests ravaged by the invasive pine beetle.

Gaining the ridge to East Temple Peak. Deep Lake behind and Haystack Mountain right. 
The amazing view to the northwest from East Temple Peak
The bold could venture out onto East Temple's "diving board" a fantastically exposed and precipitous shard of rock protruding from the summit, with 2,000ft of nothing between your feet and the lakes and rocks below!

The diving board. Don't drop your camera! 
Later that evening, Tim and I were treated to an incredible sunset progression within the Deep Lake Cirque, the waters of Deep Lake stilling enough to capture the reflections of the peaks turn from yellow to orange to red before the stars came out and treated us to more incredible views of the Milky Way.

Pingora and East Temple Peak were the primary objectives of our trip. But with continued good weather and an extra day of food, we roped up again for a "bonus" climb up Haystack Mountain. It was windy and exposed, giving it a definite "alpine" feel, but the climbing was easy and straightforward, if a bit longer than expected. Tim and I wanted to rename the peak "Energizer Mountain" because the number of false summits made it appear that it kept going and going. We eventually made the top and enjoyed the views.

The summit of Haystack Mountain. East Temple behind, left. 
Our adventure complete, we headed back to civilization, appropriately stopping at the Wind River Brewing Co. in Pinedale for celebratory beers and gluttonous burgers (topped with beef brisket!) on our way to Jackson. A few more beers atop the saddles in the Cowboy Bar finished our toasts to mountains, weather, and friendship, and I bid goodbye to Tim at the airport the next morning.

It's on to Colorado for me (#46), checking out Rocky Mountain National Park and picking up yet another Coast Guard buddy in Denver for my final drive across the country to finish all fifty states!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wyoming - Part 1

Montana's scenic Beartooth Byway ends at the gates of Yellowstone National Park. I enjoyed the drive thru the Lamar Valley watchings thousands of bison graze by the river, but making my way towards the heart of the park the traffic kept slowing growing. Yellowstone protects a large and important piece of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem and has unique geologic features, but honestly it's one of my least favorite parks owing to the insane crowds.

So I concocted a plan to avoid as many people as I could: camp outside the park (for free) in the National Forest and then get up at oh-dark-thirty to drive around the park and see the sights with sunrise. Worked like a charm! 

I began my morning with a soak in the only legal place one can enjoy Yellowstone's hot springs, the Boiling River, named for where a hot spring empties into the Gardner River, creating a cloud of steam. But boiling it is not; the superheated spring water mixes with the river water to create ideal bathing temperatures. Best of all, no one else had the idea to hop in the water and watch the sun come up (but no pictures because it was dark).

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring 

I dried off and hit the road to tour some of the other hot spring and geyser basins. I was out and about for three hours when, at about 0830, the tour buses started filling the parking lots. But I was already headed out of the park. Perfect timing! 

On a whim I headed toward Cody, founded by Buffalo Bill himself. Naturally there is a terrific museum in his honor, with exhibits full of Wild West memorabilia, Rocky Mountain ecology, Plains Indians heritage, and the world's largest firearms collection under one roof! 

Buffalo Bill Cody's stage garb
Annie Oakley's sharpshootin' guns
Lots. Of. Guns.
Cody is also the self-proclaimed "Rodeo Capital of the World" and I caught the Nite Rodeo, offered every evening from the beginning of June to the end of August. A fun time was had by all, excepting the rodeo clown I saw get speared by a bull and flipped end over end. He walked it off. 

The beginning and end of my bull riding career. I was up there for longer than 8 seconds! 
From Cody I drove down to Lander, headquarters for the National Outdoor Leadership School (I graduated from there in May) to visit with former instructors and have a beer at one of my all time favorite watering holes. A special thanks to Logan, Zach, Robin, and Jeff for the chance to catch up and their hospitality. 

Leaving Lander I drove across South Pass, one of the lowest places to cross the Continental Divide and famous for it's role in the Oregon Trail. South Pass was discovered not by Lewis and Clark but by explorers headed to John Jacob Astor's northwest "fur trading colony" on the Columbia River (you may have heard of a town named Astoria). The trans-continental railroad made South Pass obsolete and it turned into a ghost town. The State of Wyoming has painstakingly restored the town, replete with period artifacts.

Red Canyon, on the way to South Pass City
One of the many restored saloons in South Pass City
With all that time spent in civilization, I was overdue to get back on the trail! And I couldn't have picked a better objective - Fremont Peak and the Titcomb Basin in the Wind River mountain range. It was a long and dusty 16 miles hike in, avoiding horse turds from the pack trains of hunters and climbers, but the views at trail's end were some of the best I've ever seen. I climbed Fremont Peak, at 13,745ft Wyoming's third highest, and spent a beautiful but windy night camped under the stars in Titcomb Basin. 

Watch your step! 
Fremont Peak, 13,745 feet
The view from Fremont Peak. My hands were going numb from cold and I thought I was going to get blown off the top of the mountain 2,000 ft to the glacier below, so I only stayed on the summit long enough to get this photo. 
Titcomb Lakes
Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range
One of the most beautiful places I have ever been. 
I'm in Jackson now, enjoying burgers, beer, and tacky tourist stuff while I plot some adventures in Grand Teton National Park and another trip back into the Wind River Range. Wyoming rocks! 

Jackson, Wyoming's famous Town Square and Cowboy Bar
Enjoying a beer at the aforementioned Cowboy Bar. Yes, I'm sitting in a saddle.