Monday, July 30, 2012

Days 11-14: Trip Wrap-Up

We are home now, but I didn't want to leave the blog hanging without rounding out the trip. In a way, the trip home was a whirlwind, skipping through two other national parks like a stone through a river. In other ways, it was a slow crawl with Texas tugging me by my heartstrings back to the familiar.
When we left Yellowstone, Cate had made a friend from the Chech Republic. They spoke a similar language of giggles, hugs, and stuffed giraffes. They ran around our campsites, took walks, and shared flashlights. They colored pictures and read books. Even though they couldn't speak to each other, they had so much in common. That girl of mine is so inspiring. We hated to leave our new friends, the people we would never have spoken to if it hadn't been for outgoing, sweet Cate.
We stayed a night in the Grand Tetons. It was a picture-taking paradise for the hubby. Those mountains are indeed grand, y'all. Not one of them over 14k feet, but just so jagged and um, grand. Cory said, "You know when you're a kid and you're drawing mountains with crayons? They look like this." As we drove away, I literally could not get the song "America the Beautiful" out of my head. I'm cheesy, I know.

At the risk of letting you in on the fact that I'm not all that hard-core, I have to tell you that by the time we made it all the way back through Wyoming and into Colorado, I was done. The car was making a horrible rattling noise, the STUFF was closing in on me, and I wanted out of that car. And not in a tent either! I wanted back in my bed. In a car that worked. My gracious husband can spot that crazy look in my eye, so he pulled us into a hotel, stat. Cate and I slept in and swam while he took the car to get it repaired. It was a lovely little stop-over in Ft. Collins.
One more little stop in Rocky Mountain National Park was just enough of a taste to leave me wanting more. So much to do there, so many beautiful mountains. I wished we had another week to explore. I miss it already, the perspective that natural beauty provides. But we're settling back into the rhythm of routine, and that feels pretty good too.
Love this one. We're a little crazy-eyed, and well, you know how she feels.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Day 9-10: Geyser Basin

She's so cooperative.
We intentionally planned our trip so that we’d see the more developed part of the park last, thinking Cate would be ready for perusing gift shops and slurping ice cream cones after a few days in the ‘wilderness.’ Next stop: Old Faithful.
I was looking forward to this most iconic piece of the park. When we got there, though, I was a little beat down. We spent forever in the packed gift shop, stood in line for the bathroom twice, and having already promised Cate ice cream I had to stand in a line about 15 people deep. I was so ready to get out of there. We stood and waited for Old Faithful to erupt with about a hundred other people all with cameras at the ready. Though Cate had been excited to see the geyser when we got there, by the time the water starting spewing, she was already over it.
If you’re going to Old Faithful, here’s my advice: watch it with the crowd if you must, but then get on the trail behind it as quickly as possible. There is a fraction of the people there, and you can still have a great view of the most famous geyser as you hike. Once we got on the trail, I was able to see it more as an element of amazing natural beauty and less like an attraction at an amusement park. Plus, the geysers and hot springs along that trail are pretty amazing in their own rights. It’s so strange to be walking by what looks like a small pond and to see it boiling as if it were a pot on a stove. Pictures don’t even begin to capture it: the sound of trickling, rolling, or spewing water, the smell of sulfur, the oranges, blues, and greens of thriving micro organisms. Some of the springs look like a cave turned inside out. Some of them look like the cenotes we’ve seen in Mexico, with crystal clear water. Some of them look like a boiling mud puddle. It’s amazing the depths of the diversity of the world we live in. It made me feel the way I do when I stand next to the ocean: small. In a good way.

Day 7-8: Lamar Valley

Today we drove out to Lamar Valley to see more wildlife. Everywhere we stop, someone says, “Hey, you’re the girl I saw doing a dance in the lodge” or “Did you get your pancakes for breakfast?” Today, Cate’s highlight was when we stopped to watch a bison herd. A car pulled up behind us and when the girls got out they said, “Hey, there’s peanut!” (The best way we’ve been able to get Cate to smile for photos is by saying ‘peanut.’) We ended up staying for around half an hour, listening to the bison grunt and letting Cate compare photos with the other young girls, who were so sweet to indulge her. She made them make silly faces while she took pictures with her camera.
We lunched by another creek, where Cate chased the chipmunks. At first she was coaxing them saying, “Come to Mama.” Then she said, “Get over here so I can eat you for dinner!” She’s got a little country in her, I think.
We also saw our second black bear today. We had less luck with the hiking. We got several yards up one trail, when Cate insisted that she had to go poop. (TMI, I know. Sorry.) Man, the bathroom situation is tough out here. My little lady’s not shy about tinkling on the side of the road when necessary, but it still feels like we’ve hit every bathroom in the park. If we’re blessed with another child someday, I hope it’s a boy so Cory can take him to the bathroom all the time. :) Later, we tried another trail and rain clouds started rolling in. Looks like hiking was not in the cards today. Cate had a random, short nap so she was fiercely grumpy when we got back to the campsite. Every little thing produced an onslaught of tears. After dinner, she went to lie in the tent and watch movies even though it was still daylight.
The next day, we hit the wildlife jackpot! We were driving along, deciding what to do next when we saw two elk right on the side of the road with huge fuzzy antlers. Cory said that it was a good omen for another wildlife day. I was skeptical of another day of driving slowly and scouring the tree line, but I agreed. We didn’t drive much further before we came to a traffic jam, people pulled off the roads, and some just stopped in the middle all with their cameras and ‘nocs (as we’ve come to call them) out. We were in the perfect position to see a grizzly bear lumbering along a creek. We stopped right in the road with the lot of them and stayed there to watch him until the ranger made us move. He was more golden than the black bear, and larger. Graceful and powerful, he just did his own thing- paying us no mind.
We were on a nice little nature high, having just seen a ‘Griz’ and would have called the day a success if it ended there. Oh, but it didn’t. We rounded a bend in the Valley to find another traffic jam. This time, the shoulders were packed with people with large scopes. They had just seen a wolf pack take down an elk. The camaraderie was amazing: people sharing scopes and guiding others to better views. Cory was struggling to capture it with even his longest lens, so another photographer let him attach his camera to their larger lens.
The previous night, we attended a ranger talk about the wolves of Yellowstone. Apparently they had become extinct in the park, and some had recently been brought down from Canada and rereleased, where they have been thriving. They are helpful to the park by keeping the herbivore population under control, which in turn helps the plants and other animals to thrive. They still are pretty scarce, so a sighting was a definite thrill. We couldn’t believe our luck.

Day 6: Hiking and Wildlife

We like it so much in Mammoth, that we’ve changed our plans! Really, we’re just tired of packing and unpacking our tent. We decided to stay at the Mammoth tent site for a few days and just drive to where we want to sight-see and hike. Cate seems to love the car, and the driving is a great opportunity for her to get a nap in.
We woke in the morning and Cate declared that she wanted pancakes, yogurt, and chips for breakfast. In fact, she declared it to everyone she saw. It seemed inevitable that we would end up at the restaurant for breakfast instead of delving into the cooler the way we had been.
After a delicious and hearty breakfast (with pancakes shaped like a bear) and claiming our tent site, we drove out the north east road, where the wildlife was promised to be most plentiful. We were not disappointed as a small dirt road took us past a black bear. We’ve also seen plentiful pronghorn, elk, and bison. Moose and wolves still prove to be elusive at this point, but we’ll continue to keep our eyes peeled.
We made it to Tower Fall, where we stopped for about a half-mile hike. (A few years ago, a half-mile hike would have been nothing, but having a preschooler along changes everything…especially hiking times!) After taking in the vista of the waterfall, we hiked down to the river.

We took our shoes off and soaked our toes in the chilly water. Cate and I threw rocks to try to hit a big boulder in the middle of the stream. I was really dreading the uphill hike back to the car, but Cate did great. She retreated back into an imaginary world where Rocket (from Little Einsteins) was lost. She would look for him with the ‘noculars and tell us that if we saw a moose chasing him to yell, “Moose!” We found it humorous that we’d be walking along, yelling “Moose!” and people would turn and say, “Where?!”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Day 5: Mammoth Springs

I swear, we spent all morning in the bathroom while Cory tore down the campsite. Cate likes it in there because that’s where all the people are. She makes friends with everyone she meets. I love watching her; people just respond to her. People of all ages stop and talk to her, and she’s not shy about answering their questions. Sometimes I think we have complete opposite approaches to life- I try to talk to/bother as few people as possible, and she’s not satisfied if she hasn’t met someone new yet.

We drove up to the Mammoth Springs hotel to stay for the night. It was so nice to spread out a bit and have showers on-hand. Cate still gets the words hospital and hotel confused, so she kept asking, “What’s this place called again?”
There is a boardwalk built all around the Springs, so it made for semi-easy climbing. (It turns out to still be a little difficult with a 45-pound child on your back.) Cate actually did great climbing up the springs because she and Cory got a head start in front of me, and spent the whole time trying to beat me to the top. When she got tired, I hoisted her in the child carrier. Describing the springs is difficult, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I heard a young girl telling her mom, “I guess it’s pretty. Kind of.” I think that pretty much describes it. It’s not so much beautiful as it is extraordinary, otherworldly. The pictures speak for themselves:

Dinner that night was at a picnic table next to a creek that we happened upon.
Then we hit the hotel for long showers, charging of all our electronic devices, and sleeping in a bed.

Day 4: We arrive at Yellowstone

This day was rough, y’all. It was our third big driving day, and was supposed to be our second day in a row of 5 hours on the road. Somehow, through miscalculation of mileage or decreased speed limit, or SOMETHING, it turned into around 10 hours on the road. We tried stopping frequently to stretch. Cate watched movie after movie after movie. We ate candy. We were pulling out all the stops, but nothing changed the fact that we were ready to be out of the car. Wyoming is gorgeous in spurts, but there was a big long stretch of road that looked just like the dirt-filled/flat/brushy land that is familiar at home.

We did find an amazing and completely unexpected stop at Boysen State Park. Here, the mountains rise around the road, and you drive literally through them in tunnels piercing the rock.

Fate would have it that there was even a playground and picnic area. We stopped for lunch and took a few pictures. We couldn’t deny the beauty of the place, but still we were not completely bolstered. The bugs were bad, it was 95 degrees, and Cate was having none of it. We had woken her from her nap to stop.

When we reached Cody,WY, the last city before entering Yellowstone from the east, storm clouds had rolled in and raindrops were hitting the windshield. I swear, we each checked the weather at least ten times before leaving and never saw rain in the forecast. We stopped to buy rain jackets. We strategized how to most efficiently put the tent up in the rain. We discussed alternate plans in case it was pouring when we got there.

It rained on us all the way through our first drive through the park. Our views were mostly of forest and Yellowstone Lake, beautiful. When we reached our campsite at Bridge Bay, the rain had slowed to hardly a sprinkle. Some friendly Canadians at the site right next to us informed us we had just missed the downpour. We had just enough time to put the tent up before dark. So thankful.

We cooked out on our camping stove, and finally got to roast the marshmallows Cate had been asking for. We’re here, friends! Hooray!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Day 3: On the road again!

After a stop, and little too much fun at REI, we were on the road again. I love the views in Colorado, but honestly Colorado Springs makes me feel a little claustrophobic. I can’t SEE where we’re going with all the twists and turns and ups and downs. The streets are narrow, and it all feels crowded. Denver and the other northern cities feel a little more spread out (and yes, flat!), and I actually found that refreshing. Still close to the mountains, still the gorgeous landscapes, but with a little more visibility. I seem to really like the northern parts of states: New Mexico, Colorado, California…but I digress.
We stopped for lunch at Ft. Collins, and walked around the CSU campus area. There was a huge flower garden on display. 
Cate found the groundskeeper and told him she liked his flowers. Then a great adventure began. We searched for and eventually found a baby dragon! He apparently was yellow, liked eating purple flowers best, and was joining us for the rest of our trip. Suddenly, we were all dragons!  Daddy dragon, Mommy dragon, Little dragon, and Baby dragon. Quite a little family. According to Cate, Baby dragon was locked in a stinky tower until we got there and saved him. Also, dragons like to drink sweet tea, and we had to buy 4 cookies at the convenient store- Cate said she’d make sure Baby dragon got his.
We drove through Cheyenne, WY, and into Casper (WY’s second largest city). I had never been to this state before, but it is beautiful. Wide open spaces, rolling hills, often not another car in sight.  We didn’t plan much time for our stay in Casper because it seemed rather small without much to do. We are loving the campground though- with a playground, indoor pool, and mini-golf course, it is a Cate-paradise! The mountains in the horizon are lovely, and there aren’t too many city lights spoiling the horizon. 

Day 2: Colorado Springs

The next morning we explored Garden of the Gods, which is basically a huge, amazingly awesome(free!) city park. It has huge rock formations and mountains, and a lot of it is paved side walk. Cate was so excited to hike; she was leading the way, always wanting to go exploring off the trail. We climbed rocks, on top of which she said she could “see everything.” She loved being the leader, hollering, “Come on, team!” or “Bend your knees!” She was identifying cacti and animal tracks, and was particularly interested in horse poop.
Later in the morning her enthusiasm waned, and she wanted us to carry her. In the more paved area, she seemed less interested. Luckily a group of musicians was taking a group photo there and let her check out their instruments. One guy let her push the valves on his trumpet while he blew it. Then we carried her around in the child carrier.

Our next item for the day was the cog train up Pike’s Peak. It was packed and the seats were smile, a perfect opportunity to make some of those “new friends” Cate was talking about. We got about 10 minutes up the mountain when the train came to a halt. At first we all thought it was a joke. When the driver said, “Oh no, I think something’s wrong,” everyone on the train laughed. When he radioed back to the station and spoke about dropped oil pressure, we knew it was a legitimate break-down. Luck would have it that we were seated one  row behind the driver. Cate turned to him and (quite loudly) asked:
C: What’s wrong?
Driver: I don’t know, it just stopped going.
C: Well, you need to fix it!
D: I’m trying.
The whole train was laughing at that. Everyone around us was suddenly very friendly. One guy kept saying that Cate was the one who broke it, until finally she said, “Well, if I did, it was an accident!” We sat for probably 45 minutes while they figured out a way to get us back to the station, and Cate kept morale high by telling stories and singing songs. I think the highlight was when the same man asked, “Where are you from, Cate?” And she said, “I came out of my mommy’s tummy at the hospital.”

We finally made it to the bottom, and decided maybe the train wasn’t for us after all. Cate was restless with all the waiting, so we got a refund and went on our way.
Next stop: Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.  She was pretty tired by this time. But let me just say, I. loved. the. zoo! There were so many animals I had never seen before like grizzlies, moose, a bald eagle, all sorts of crazy lizards and bright blue poisonous frogs. The reptile house looked more like an art museum. The gorillas and orangutans would get right next to the glass and stare at you while they chomped their fruit. It was captivating to see them so close and realize how big they are. We fed the giraffes and even got to see a newborn giraffe who was just 2 days old.

Cate’s favorite things were the pony ride and the little ground squirrels that run around and beg for food from the other animals and visitors. This one came right up to us, and held its arms up to Cate for food. She said, “Him wants me to hold him.” She wanted to take him home. 

 Dinner at a pizza joint, then swimming at the campsite. A jam-packed day. We were all exhausted. We fell into bed around 10 and didn’t wake up till 7:30 (Colorado time), and if you know Cate, you know that is an amazing amount of sleep-in time!

Grand Yellowstone Adventure: Day 1

The last time I blogged my way through a road trip, I was able to give each day its own post (at least in the beginning). This time around, I’m finding that to be a lofty goal. I’m inclined to blame it on having a 3-year-old along, but really she’s been a champ about it all. She is excellent on the road. 

We headed through the northern parts of both Texas and New Mexico. We were pleasantly surprised by the terrain in the Clayton and Raton areas. Grassy and hilly, they look quite a bit different from the land in our part of the world. We made it all the way to Colorado Springs the first night. Google maps indicated that it would take us eight and a half hours to get there. We left around 11:00 am and finally made it to our campsite around 10:30 that night. We wanted to knock out the longest part of the trip first. A lot of times, Cate kept us going with her enthusiasm. She kept talking about seeing her new friends over and over, to the point where we worried that she thought someone was meeting us there. We asked her who she thought would be there, and she just said, “I don’t know; we’ll see when we get there!”
We were starting to get moody after a stop at Wal-Mart for some forgotten items. I was put out by the state of the restrooms, (Cate wants to spend an inordinate amount of time in public restrooms!) and honestly just walking into a Wal-Mart makes me grumpy. When we got back to the car, we had this conversation:
Cate: Where are we going, guys?
Cory: We’re going camping.
Cate: (singsongy) I can’t hear you!
Cory: We’re going camping!
Cate: Both of you say it. Louder!
All of us: We’re going camping!!
It was impossible not to smile after that.