A Travellerspoint blog

March 2010

Coming Home

Some Thoughts About Coming Home, Being Home, and Leaving Home

sunny 45 °F

[*]Of late, I’ve been on a connect the dots tour across the Midwest visiting friends and family. March, in the Midwest, isn’t very attractive. The snow is melting, and the ugly brown carpet of earth isn’t very pretty. Everything is brown, drab, sun dried, and flat. It’ll be a few weeks before grasses poke through, and spring really begins. So I’m making the best of it by seeing my family, and dropping by old friends for a few days, before I drive up to Alaska in early April.
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I’ve been spending a lot of time in Michigan. Specifically, the Keweenaw Peninsula where I grew up. I still have a lot of family in the area, and I wanted to stay for a couple weeks, to recharge, to refinance (aka filing my taxes) and to reconnect with the region that I once called home.

Home. Home is a place that has a variety of meanings. It could be where you came from, it could be where you currently live. It could be where your heart is. It might be a fancy place to store material goods. To most, it’s a foundation of their life. A place where you start and end your day; your home base, your castle, your fortress of solitude, your sanctuary. A place you can let your guard down, relax and recharge your batteries. For most people, this might be at least a partially fitting description. For me, home is a bit different.

I don’t have a physical home to call my own. I have connections to places where I once lived in Michigan and Minnesota, but no location to settle each night. My visits to my old homes are now infrequent. I’ll get home to Michigan about 4 times a year. My favorite time is Thanksgiving. That’s when most of my family makes the effort to get together, and it’s good to see everyone at the Hancock Miller’s Thanksgiving Extravaganza. Through much of the year, I don’t have a fixed residence I stay at, certainly there is no place I stay longer than 5 months. Last year, I spent 5 months traveling, 5 months in Alaska and 2 months in Duluth, Mn.

“You can never go home again.” Somebody said it, and it’s true. Fortunately, the cold hard reality of this is only learned once. For me, it was after I moved away from my childhood home in Michigan, and returned several months later on my first visit. It wasn’t the same place I grew up, it was the same in a physical sense, but something inside me had reached a turning point, and I knew I could never go back to my childhood places, thoughts, and feelings again. I think it happens to everyone, part of growing up, part of life. As I grew older and returned periodically, I realized that there is still a part of me that considers this part of the world “home.” Mostly this feeling occurs when I out strolling through the back 90 acres of our family farm. I feel a connection to the land, a pride in it, a feeling that this tiny piece of earth has made me who I am.

I grew up on a 93 acre farm located in a river valley 5 miles from the nearest town. It’s located in the middle of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, the finger of land that juts up into Lake Superior. Our land is a mix of hardwood forests, pastures, and occasional pine groves of spruce, red pine, and balsam. It’s a good piece of land, though we never farmed it. There are over a 100 natural apple trees that produce delicious apples every fall. There is a blueberry patch, a black berry patch, wild strawberries and morel mushrooms. The water is excellent to drink, no additives necessary. About a quarter mile away is a nice little trout stream, that I spent many summer days plying the waters with hundreds of worms hoping to entice a trout. Deer have made a strong hold in our woods. Their trails criss cross throughout the woods. When taking a walk, it‘s a common sight to see the deer bounding and leaping away, their bright white tails fully erect signaling danger. This was an idyllic land for a kid to call home. As I didn’t have many friends that lived near me, and my older brother and cousins only occasionally allowed me to tag along, I often spent a lot of time alone, wandering through the woods and exploring the valley. At the time, most of the surrounding farms were owned by relatives or indifferent land owners who didn’t care if you crossed their land. So in essence I had miles and miles of territory to explore. I loved being outside, a condition I still am happily afflicted with. In many ways, my childhood has affected my current penchant for travel and seeing new places.

Roughly 16 miles away from the farm, in the sleepy village of Eagle River, our family owns a small vacation home. Locally, these are called “camps.” In Minnesota, they are called “cabins“, in the north east they are called “cottages.” No matter what you call it, they all have the same result: a place to go on weekends, and in the summer, to relax, swim, and take it easy. Our camp has been in the family since the late 1800’s, so this place has a deep familiarity and meaning for me: These are my roots. The cottage is located near the banks of the Eagle River for which the town takes its named, A gorgeous set of waterfalls tumbles down the ledge rock on its way to Lake Superior about 100 yards away from the camp. In early spring, when the river is swollen from melting snow, the falls roar can be heard from my bedroom; a soothing lullaby. There is a deep swimming hole at the bend in the river, a good spot to go when the lake is too cold. My ancestors chose wisely when considering a homestead.
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Three blocks away, and down a fairly steep hill, is Lake Superior, the largest of the great lakes. It’s crystal clear, cold refreshing water has been a part of my life since I was born. Walking its rugged shore line and occasional sand beaches has always been a soothing balm. I love swimming in it, though it can only be comfortably done from roughly late June to early September. I love watching storms over the lake, especially the lighting forks cutting the night sky. I like watching the large waves fueled by northwest winds pummel the shore, while the wind whips up the beach sand. There are nights when the wind is warm and sultry. Sometimes on these warm nights, you can see the northern lights when they dance their eerie salute to the northland.
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This week, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Eagle River. I won’t see it again until mid October, and I want to take advantage of the time I have. There is a lot of work to be done around the camp, and I don’t mind taking on some spring chores while I‘m here. While I work, I’ve had a lot of time to think. While doing boring household chores, my mind wander around, and sometimes, my thoughts turn introspectively.

I don’t live a conventional life where I take a 2 week holiday from work and head out to some distant locale. Instead, I run on an opposite schedule, where I’ll spend 2 weeks at home a year. For much of the rest of the year, I’ll either be on the road or working in some distant locale. Like anything, long term travel has its pros and cons. Evaluating them, and deciding what kind of life I want to live isn’t easy. Sacrifices I make to travel might mean you don’t have the comforts of a physical home. Having a home is fundamental part of life, yet I wouldn’t give my travel experiences up for anything. It can be a mental tug of war.

I have mixed feelings about coming home. Naturally, I like visiting my family, friends, and visiting my old haunts. Part of me knows that I can’t get too comfortable, because the next trip is coming up. I usually time my visits just after one trip and before the next one starts. It gives me a chance to reflect on the last journey and prepare for the next.

I’m not the same when I’m home, I tend to be more lethargic, more content to take it easy and relax. Part of this might be travel fatigue. Everyone gets tired from time to time, and I’m no different. I eat more, my mom makes sure I’m well fed, and it’s impossible to refuse. It’s kind of like Christmas. I think the lethargy gets to me, because when I leave and get back to life on the road, I feel refreshed and glad to be back in the saddle.
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I’m departing tomorrow morning. I’m driving south into central Wisconsin to visit a friend and some more family. Then I’m off to Duluth, and up into the North Shore region of Minnesota for a couple days before I turn the van west and begin my next Alaskan journey. For now, I’m going to make the best of my last couple hours here in Michigan, because it won’t be long before I’ll be on that road once again.
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“Not all wanderers are lost.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Posted by Rhombus 17:15 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

High Plains Drifting

Bighorn Canyon, Devil's Tower, Short Cuts and Badlands

sunny 44 °F

The high plains of the U.S. are found in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, eastern Montana, and western Minnesota. In March, this landscape is a vast sea of dried grassland, with long rolling hills, coulees, and eroded gullies formed by the rivers and creeks. Occasional trees can be seen, usually surrounding ranch houses which provide shade and block the wind. Cottonwoods also grow along the creeks and rivers, the only place for reliable water. I think a fitting motto for the high plains would be, “Up, Down & Brown.“ Driving through the high plains can be mind numbing, and most of the people I’ve talked to hate driving through the daunting plains. The boredom gets to them, and the dull landscape causes them to delve into their own minds, a scary place. I don’t mind driving the plains. It’s so very different than the thick forests of the upper Midwest where I call home. I believe it’s a good experience for everyone to drive across the great plains. We have the luxury of paved roads and automobiles. Imagine the settlers of the 1800’s, crossing in horse drawn wagons. It took them weeks and weeks of steady travel, while modern travelers can cross in about 2 days depending on how fast and how long you drive.

While it’s true that most of the land is rolling grassland, there are a number of amazingly beautiful areas hiding sporadically through the high plains. To break up the monotony, I like to string together several of these scenic areas to visit and explore. On this particular trip, I visited the Bighorn Canyon of Montana and Wyoming, Devil’s Tower National Monument, and Bad Lands National Park. Along the way, I drove over the high rugged Bighorn Mountains and the Black Hills. Traveling this way, I find I enjoy the drive a lot more than driving straight through bored out of my mind and hating the relentless plain.
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Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is found north of Lovell, Wyoming. It is bordered on the west by the rugged Pryor Mountains which are home to herds of wild horses. The region is very rugged, gravelly, and rocky land, dotted with Juniper, Yucca, Sage brush, and desert grasses. The main canyon is very impressive. The Bighorn River winds through like a giant blue snake slithering through the desert. It doubles back on itself, as it winds deep in the earth. The sheer cliffs that rise 1000 feet above the river are of a soft sedimentary rock, very crumbly and not to be trusted. The canyon is home to a variety of animals. Big Horn Sheep, horses, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes, lizards and birds among others all live in the region. The river runs steady and strong, a popular rafting destination during the summer. The total sum of all these parts of the landscape make the Bighorn Canyon a dramatic beautiful, and haunting region to explore.
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It was my first visit to Bighorn Canyon. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had hopes of seeing the wild horses of the Pryor mountains, and maybe some Big Horn sheep. I paid my entrance fee, and started driving north into the park. I passed a sign that informed me that I was now in the Pryor Mountain wild horse refuge, and 100 feet further up the road, there they were. Three horses stood contentedly in the grass of a roadside meadow. They ate the grass, unconcerned with my presence. I watched them for awhile, then moved on. Before seeing these horses, I had images of wild stallions galloping in herds through the desert. Perhaps I was a bit romantic in my thinking of these horses. These ones acted like regular ranch horses.
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The views from the canyon rim are fabulous. I hiked around at Barry’s Landing, the Devil Canyon Overlook, and the Ranger’s Delight trail during my visit. The Devil Canyon overlook offers an eagle eye view over the river. From 1000 feet over the river, the canyon bends and curves as it twists its way along. As I was alone, so I hollered out a long “ECCCHHHOOOO” and was rewarded by my voice bouncing off of the sheer rock walls and fading into the distance. Montana has excellent echoing canyons. I ate my lunch at Barry’s landing, a wide bend in the river, which has a boat launch and picnic area. I scrambled down a rocky swale to the edge of the river. The water was cold and blue, reflecting the sky. There was still a thin layer of ice on over half the river. I finished my visit by hiking the Ranger’s Delight trail. This aptly named short hike leads to a rock outcrop high over the river canyon. I loved the views from here. It’s one thing to drive through a park, but to really get a feel for it, I like to hike far into the scenic areas off the beaten path.
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Some Views of the Bighorn Mountains.
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The Devil’s Tower in north eastern Wyoming has been a landmark since man has first discovered it. I wonder about the name. It seems to me that the Devil gets a lot of awesome places named after it. For instance, I’ve visited The Devil’s: washtub, tower, seven spires, gulch, canyon, den, slide, and cauldron to name a few. All of these places have the same thing in common. They are amazingly beautiful, and are usually a very unique landform of some kind. Why is it the devil gets all the good stuff? I figure he must have a better agent.
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Anyway, I’ve visited the Devil’s Tower several times before. It had been a few years since my last visit, and since it was right on the way, it was pretty much a given that I would stop by. I hoped for a sunny day. On all of my previous visits, the sky was overcast and dull. I bought a National parks pass for $80. This pass will allow me entrance to any national park, monument or recreation area and will pay for itself many times over in the course of a year.
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I drove up to the parking area, put together my back pack, and went for a walk around the rock tower. I was the only one on the trail, a situation I relish. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. Wyoming generates an amazingly azure sky, and I’m always amazed with it. I followed the snowy track of the paved trail around the tower walking in a counter clockwise direction. I enjoyed the quiet of a deserted ponderosa forest. Birds chirped merrily, and white tailed deer could be seen foraging in the clearings. I stopped often to gaze up at the immense rock tower. I had to crane my neck to see the top of it as the trail followed close to the base of it. It was a very pleasant morning walk.
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I got back to the van, and drove off to a parking area with a distant view of the Tower. The tower rises over 1200 feet above the Belle Fourche river that runs near it. From where I was at, a snow covered meadow led to the forest around the tower. It made a beautiful back drop for lunch. I was feeling Spring, and it was time to break out my grill. A grilled lunch in a picturesque setting is one of my secrets of a fulfilling life. Food for my belly and views for my soul, a perfect combination. After lunch, I read for awhile and got sleepy. A nap was in order, I cracked the windows to let in the breeze and zonked out on my bed. Ahh, I love a good siesta.

I ended the day by driving over the Black hills and taking the scenic route through the Bad Lands National Park. By the time I got near the Bad Lands, it was dark. I planned on staying in Wall, some 60 miles away by paved roads. As I drove, I saw a sign that said, “Wall 30 miles” and an arrow pointing north. I didn’t think much about it, I just turned my van north and decided to take the short cut. Short cuts however, don’t always work out like you figure.

The road I turned on was a gravel road with a lot of mud mixed in due to the spring thaw. I didn’t think much about it, I just drove on. It wasn’t long before I began to question my decision. The road wasn’t in great shape, it’s muddy goo was pulling my van around, and I had to concentrate fairly hard to stay on the road. The road also began to get skinnier, it wasn’t long before I couldn’t turn around on it without sliding into the ditch. The road wasn’t particularly well labeled, there were side roads intersecting with the road I was on, and I wasn’t confident I was on the right road. My fuel level was getting low, I knew I could make it to Wall on the short cut, but I wasn’t sure I could make it if I turned around and drove the long way around. It was soon evident I was in the middle of nowhere. No lights could be seen in any direction, and it was unlikely I would meet another driver. It was kind of unnerving to be alone in all that country. I crossed the cattle grate crossing into Bad Lands National Park. The first thing I saw was two Buffalo bounding onto the middle of the road 100 feet in front of me, they faced me and stood there ground. It was as though they were challenging me, demanding to know why I had entered their territory. Who was I to disturb the peace?

They stared at me, I looked at them. A stalemate. I couldn’t drive around them, and they weren’t moving. I couldn’t turn around, I just had to wait. Then, one of them bolted off of the road, jumping over the ditch showing off its athletic ability. What an awesome animal! The other one, decided to jump the 6 foot ditch as well, only this one after it landed recrossed the ditch and once again stared me down from the middle of the road. I began to wonder if these buffalo were thinking about exacting revenge against me for all of the buffalo that were needlessly slaughtered by men in the 1800’s. Not a pleasant thought. I decided to see if I could coax him off of the road and started slowly driving toward him. It caved, and finally bounded out of my way and rejoined the nearby herd.

After that welcome to the park, the road conditions worsened, adding large puddles and snow drifts to the mix. The road began to twist and turn, dropping down and climbing up the small hills of the grassland. I took it slow, one mile at a time, wondering if I would ever get off of this hell road. I was sick of it, I had driven almost 300 miles already that day, and now I was in a situation that required total concentration with no guarantee of deliverance at the end. A self inflicted nightmare of a road that I had volunteered for, and I rued my decision. Sometimes on the road, you find yourself in bad situations. As Edward Abbey said, “When the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about.” As I drove, I thought about this and relaxed a little. I was still making progress, and the worst case scenario only meant that I would be sleeping out in the prairie. Definitely not the end of the world. I decided I was WAY too uptight, and rolled down my windows to let some fresh air in. It helped relax me, and I settled in now digging the free adventure I had given myself. Who crosses 30 miles of the nether regions of the South Dakota bad lands in the middle of the night? I do. I rallied and it wasn’t long before I saw the twinkling lights of Wall and drove onto the reassuring pavement once again. Sometimes you’ve got to drive some really bad roads to appreciate the good ones.

I pulled into my motel for the night, exhausted and road weary. The clerk at the motel was very cheerful and happy to have a customer. She smiled as she handed me my key, appearing to have been chewing tobacco not long ago. Since I was new to the area, I wasn’t sure if this was common among the women of South Dakota. At that point, I didn’t really care. I happily went to my room, took a hot shower and crawled into my bed.
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The next morning I awoke early. Before driving through the boring parts of South Dakota, I made a loop through the Bad Lands National Park. This time, it would be in the daylight and on paved roads. I drove southeast on Hwy 240 the scenic loop that gives you a good look at the interesting features of the park. It was a nice day for a drive, partly sunny, and cool out. The skies were blue, and made the badlands really stand out. The biggest attraction to the badlands are the eerie dried mud formations that have been eroded away forming into the fantastic shapes. I stopped for breakfast at a scenic turn off, I really enjoy taking my food in a scenic location. Then I drove on, stopping at many of the pull outs to walk around and take pictures. The badlands make for some interesting shots, I love the striated lines forming into the eroded buttes and sharp spires. The only wildlife I saw were a lot of deer. They were grazing in the fields alongside of the road.
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It was a quick trip through the park for me. Usually I take my time in our national parks, trying to find its hidden secrets. Not this time. I realized that I had run out of neat places to visit and all that was left was the long prairie of South Dakota. I wanted to get it over with, to get back to Minnesota, to see my friends and family once again. With that motivation, I hadn’t the heart to stay very long in the badlands, and I was soon burning rubber east over the monotonous plains.

Posted by Rhombus 21:31 Archived in USA Tagged photography Comments (1)

A Collection of Firsts

Skiing Grand Targhee, Some Thoughts on Couch Surfing, Returning to Montana

sunny 38 °F

I’ve spent the last couple of days between Idaho and Montana, with a day trip into Wyoming. Three states I really like a lot, and enjoy spending time in. I’ve had a number of good experiences during the last few days that bear mentioning. I skied at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, I’ve started couch surfing, I drove into Montana on roads I’ve never driven before, and I took some decent photographs of Trumpeter Swans.
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I drove east from Rexburg, Idaho into the Teton valley enjoying a brilliant winter morning scene. The warm light lit up the snow covered valley and the Grand Teton mountains of Wyoming were glimmering under the morning sun. It had been a couple of days since I had seen the sun, and I was enjoying the physical and psychological warmth the sun bestows on our planet. I was excited! I was going to go skiing at Grand Targhee, a resort highly recommended to me by everyone I know who has ever skied there. It was also not going to cost me a dime (other than gas used driving there); a present from my couch surfing host. He had a free pass and was nice enough to give it to me. I drove up the winding road from Driggs, Idaho east into Wyoming. The Tetons were clearly visible and dominated the horizon. I kept glancing from the road, to the mountains and back to the road again, like I was a bird watching a table tennis match. I parked and got my gear together and headed off to the chairlift.
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I spent the morning gazing at the magnificent mountain views. The mountains were out in all their winter splendor. The tops of the rocky faces and steep cliffs were covered in bright snow. The blue shadows where the lofty peaks blocked the sun contrasted with the white snow. The sky was a deep azure blue, making the snow capped peaks stand out that much more. White clouds that were blowing off of the high peaks seemingly trying to get over the tips of the rock without touching, but failing. Intermittent pines dotted the lower mountain sides, some forming groves of deep green trees.

The skiing wasn’t all that great however, the mountain hadn’t seen any new snow for about a week before my visit, and the surface was very hard and icy. It didn’t help that I hadn’t sharpened the edges on my skis since the beginning of the year, and so it was like attempting ice skating with dull skates, not very easy. I can say though, that if Targhee had a good powder day, it would be phenomenal. That’s kind of the thing with skiing. If the snow conditions are good, you are always going to think well of the mountain. If they are bad, then you might hesitate to return, and your feelings concerning the hill will be negative. While I didn’t see Targhee at its best, I didn’t really mind because the mountain views made it all worth it.

I did something really stupid while on the mountain. I had stopped at a scenic overlook of the mountains and was trying to take a picture of myself. A nice young woman asked me if she could help by taking the picture for me. I thanked her and handed her my camera. I decided that I wanted to have a really nice shot, and I slipped under the boundary rope protecting skiers from the edge of the cliff. Well, I didn’t think much about it, and was standing there smiling like an idiot, when I fell into the snow up to my armpits. I had fallen through the cornice. A cornice is a ledge of wind driven snow that builds up over the edge of a cliff or mountain. It is unsupported from underneath, and hangs onto the mountain by friction of the drifting snow. Not a great place to walk, especially under the freeze and thaw conditions of spring. So there I was up to my chest in snow, and I knew that this was not a great place to be. I calmly crawled my way out of the hole and rolled back under the rope. A close call, that could’ve been a lot worse. I learned my lesson: Don’t go beyond the ropes!! I was stupid. There was a sign right in front of me that warned me of death if I crossed the rope, and I blew it off without even thinking about it. Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t even get an adrenaline rush out of it. The lady took my picture and had a story to tell her friends. I wonder what she would’ve thought had I completely fallen through, “Hmm, I guess he won’t be needing this camera anymore...”
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Couch surfing has turned out to be an awesome community to join. I had recently found out about this program in January, and was interested to see how it could affect my travels. Basically, CS is a community of people who offer their couch and home for travelers to stay at while they are in the area. It’s carried on through online participation. You create a profile, declaring if you have a couch to offer. People can contact you via the CS website and request your couch. To me, it makes complete sense for the following reasons: It’s economical, it allows you to meet local people of the area who can offer insight that a guide book would never know, it’s a good way to learn about the areas customs and culture, and you will remember the people and families who took you in and showed you their hospitality.

My first experience was very positive, I met a terrific young couple who were very nice, generous, interesting, and funny. They had hosted and surfed many times, and had no problems with me staying in their home. It was great. I saved money, I met two very interesting and knowledgeable travelers who gave me ideas on my own future travels. I was glad to see the CS system worked, and how positive it could be. Now that I’ve surfed a couple of times, I realize that a combination of surfing and independent travel is probably the best way to go. Meet people who can help you figure out the country you are in, get a taste of local customs, and then head out and explore on your own. That’s the way I’m going to travel from now on. Check out www.couchsurfing.org if you are interested in joining this fun community.
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I drove back into Montana over the pass near Henry's Lake. It was a beautiful day for driving, and I had no engagements until the evening when I planned on meeting some friends for dinner, and finding my next CS host. So I took it easy, the scenery was fabulous and beautiful in typical Montana fashion. I was driving north through the Madison river valley along highways 87 and 287. The grass was sun dried and golden with occasional patches of snow. The Madison river is a dark colored river and it reflected the pale blue sky as a very dark blue. Sporadic Cottonwood groves grew along side of it, and near the creeks that emptied into it. Distant mountains were visible in every direction. The valley was sandwiched between the Gravelly range and the Rocky mountains. The mountains were very rugged and snow capped, brilliant white in the bright sunshine.
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I passed through an impressive rocky canyon just west of Bozeman. There were several pullouts and campgrounds along side of the road that allows access to the river. There were a lot of fisherman taking advantage of this, I saw some in boats, and lot of shore casters enjoying the Sunday sunshine. I decided to take a siesta myself, and parked right along the edge of the water. I had a peaceful time, reading, river watching, and relaxing. A perfect Sunday afternoon pastime!
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After I got to Bozeman, I met one of my friends before dinner, and we decided to go for a walk in a park near the rendezvous place for our dinner party. At the park, there was a muddy path that made its way around a small pond. The sun was setting, and warm light was dramatically lighting up the pond. In the pond, foraging around for their dinner, were two Trumpeter Swans and several Mallard ducks. What luck! They were pretty much oblivious to us walking along the path, so I had many opportunities to photograph them. I liked how the ducks would dunk themselves, reaching deep with their beaks while their arses stuck up out of the water. Hilarious. I enjoyed myself, taking many photos. I realized that so far this trip that I’ve had tremendous luck with my photography. I happened to show up at a nice pond while a strong sunset was taking place. Then, there happened to be something interesting to photograph to complete the scene. As a photographer, sometimes all you can do is just head outside and have your camera ready. Sometimes you’ll strike artistic gold, and other times you won’t take a single photo. I find you can increase your odds a little, by going out in good lighting, by going to someplace scenic, and spend a lot of time there. Put yourself in a good situation, and eventually your time will pay off. Not only that, but even if you didn’t find a worthy scene, you still had the chance to enjoy the great outdoors, and get a little exercise.
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So long, from Bozeman!

Posted by Rhombus 19:27 Archived in USA Tagged photography Comments (0)

Taking It Slow In Idaho

A 900 Mile Journey In a State Full of Surprises.

sunny 54 °F

I left my winter home on Monday. I was happy to get back on the road once again, and I had all new territory to explore. Namely, Idaho. There is much of this state that I haven’t seen, and many roads through landscapes I hadn‘t yet driven. All weekend long I spent in preparation for the journey. I baked fresh honey wheat bread and cinnamon rolls. I cooked up a big pot of homemade chili, and hard boiled some eggs. With all this food prepped ahead of time, it makes the first week easy when it comes to meal time. Along with food prep, I packed up the van, organized it, cleaned it, and made sure I didn’t forget anything. In my free time, I was studying my atlas, trying to piece together a route that would allow me to explore, and keep off of the freeways as much as possible. I also crunched my financial numbers to see roughly how much this trip would cost, estimating mileage to figure gas expenditures. Finally, all my preparations were finished and all I had left to do was hand in the keys to my cabin, point my van south, and step on the accelerator. I was ready.

Idaho has turned out to be a state full of nice surprises. To date, I’ve driven over 900 miles through this state alone, and have seen the variety of terrain that Idaho offers the wayward traveler. I’ve been taking it slow and easy, stopping a lot at roadside parks, state parks, and natural attractions. A leisurely drive, satisfying my curiosity wherever and whenever it gets piqued.
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The first thing that struck me, was the magnificent rivers that run through the state. On the first day alone, I drove along the Coeur d’Alene, the Clearwater, the Salmon, the Little Salmon, the Payette, and the South Fork of the Payette. The rivers were all beautiful in their own way. Cold, clear water from melting snow high up in the mountains starts the process. Eventually it all collects at the lowest point and gushes and rushes through the rocky valleys. Idaho is very mountainous and often the easiest way to navigate the country is by river. When they built the highway system, they built the roads along side of the river, the easiest place to build a road. So many of the miles I’ve traveled are along these great rivers.
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I stopped for lunch at a sunny park on the banks of the mighty Salmon river. The Salmon is one of Idaho’s quintessential rivers. The river banks are made up of high grass foothills, striated with a million wrinkles from where water has flowed. I ate my sandwich in the shade, and watched a friendly flock of Bohemian Waxwings forage and flirt. I took off my boots and socks and walked down to the beach. I couldn’t resist, I rolled up my pants and stepped into the water. It was refreshing, and soon it was numbing. I realized that if I had a Native American Indian name, it would probably be “Pale Feet.” The warm sand of the beach felt good after the cold water, and I walked back up to grassy picnic area. I enjoyed seeing fresh green grass again, there’s nothing greener than the first growth of spring. After so many months of seeing only dead dried out leaves, weeds and grasses, the first tendrils of the intense green of spring always raises my spirits. I was also sitting in the sunshine of a 65 degree day without a care in the world, that helps too.
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One of Idaho’s greatest gifts is the hot spring. These natural bathing pools are found throughout Idaho, and I consider it a travesty to my soul if I didn’t stop and go for a soak whenever I’m in the state. I have help in finding the springs, I’ve a guide book that I always have packed when visiting the Pacific Northwest. Using this book, I found 3 new roadside pools to ease away the days tension (What tension? How tense can you get spending your days driving around Idaho?). My favorite moment occurred when I woke up early after a good nights rest. It was still dark out, and as I stepped outside, I heard the trampling of hooves, I had scared some deer. I grabbed my cold wet shorts that I had hung up to dry outside the night before. It was excruciating putting them back on, I cringed through the whole process. I slipped on my sandals and walked the 200 yards down to the spring. I was cold, but I knew a steamy reward awaited me, and it was like slipping into a pool of sheer heaven. I kept whispering aloud to myself, “AHHHHH.” It was great. I watched the day slowly dawn, while sitting luxuriously in 102 degree water. The sound of the birds chirping, the rushing white noise of the South Fork of the Payette not far away were all I could hear. It was serene, and a beautiful way to start your day.

Everyone told me that southern Idaho is boring. “It’s just one big potato field,” to quote a friend. I had no preconceptions, I figured a road that I haven’t traveled is good enough for me, and I’ll take whatever I find as part of the journey. What I found out, was that my friends must have stayed on the freeway. They probably didn‘t stop, and they don’t look at maps the way I do. On the contrary, Southern Idaho has some of the most dramatic scenery of the state, you just have to look for it. I believe that is part of its charm. Yes, there is a lot of flat open country, reminiscent of the plains of Texas, Nebraska, and Nevada. It’s high desert country, meaning a lot of sage brush and a lot of flat land. There are a lot of ranches and agriculture, and miles of open desert. All this open land lulls you into a kind of boredom after awhile. But if you keep on towards your destination, such as: Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway, Bruneau Canyon, Bruneau Dunes, Big Balancing Rock, Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, the land will suddenly change into a dramatic, beautiful, and unique landscape you never imagined existed in Idaho. I was enthralled with the region.
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I almost completely missed the Bruneau area. I was traveling southeast just west of Mountain Home on the freeway when I noticed a sign that said, “Bruneau Dunes State Park.” I had a second to decide, and I thought to myself, “I like dunes, let’s check it out.” So I pulled off the interstate and gassed up. While fueling, I looked at the map and saw that Bruneau Dunes was about 15 miles south, it had a campground and that my map indicated a “deep scenic canyon” southeast of Bruneau. It was a done deal, I was going. So I drove south through the flat, sage brush covered desert land, wondering how in the hell a canyon could hide in all this flatness. The road turned to gravel, and still I continued on past more ranches, with fat black angus beef stock, staring dumbly at the van. I turned south to the scenic overlook, kicking up rocks and dust. Then after I drove over a little rise, the land fell away into a huge chasm of crumbling rock. I was amazed. I parked and ran to the edge, the drop down to the river was over 800 feet, and it was almost a quarter of a mile wide. It was immense. I sat on the edge for a long time, listening to the wind and the rushing river carving its way deeper into the earth. I was impressed with how vast and rugged it was, completely inaccessible from where I was, but what a view. My mind started to wonder about what else the region had to offer, so after a while I headed back north to Bruneau Dunes State Park.
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The park was basically deserted when I arrived. I was the only visitor, and I drove the winding road past the campground to the picnic area, located near the dunes. The dunes were impressive, they are the largest sand dune structure in North America. Who knew? Not me, but I was glad I made the trip. The wind was blowing very hard, and the dunes were erasing any tracks recreating the fine edge of the ridge line. It was getting late, and I headed back to the campground to settle in for the night.

I slept beautifully. I went to bed early, and so I woke up early, long before dawn. A ¾ full moon reflected plenty of light to see. The wind had calmed down during the night, and the robins and black birds were all up cheerfully chattering and foraging for breakfast. I think that’s one of my favorite parts of van traveling, the fact that I can sleep in beautiful areas in complete peace. Since I’m not wealthy enough to build a cabin in a beautiful spot, yet, I’ll take what I can get. Most views out of a bedroom window look onto a neighbors house, mine look out onto a gorgeous desert scene with high sand dunes in the distance. Not too shabby.
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The birds were out in full force that morning. Robins were everywhere, and a flock of black birds showed up. Throughout the day, the black birds were gaining numbers, and by that evening, I would guess their were at least 200 birds in the flock, foraging and moving as one. It was very cool to see.
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I went back to the dunes. The wind had done a good job of erasing any tracks that had existed. The sand had wind ripples formed into it, a very pleasing leading line for photography. I took my time, walking carefully trying not to disturb the delicate lines any more than I had to. The sun was shining bright and at a low angle giving definition to the ridge line of the dunes. I hiked up to the high dune, it was massive, I’ve never been to the Sahara, but I have to think it compares to some of the dunes there. It was exhausting climbing up to the ridge line, I would take 10 steps and stop, panting for breath. The highest dune rises 470 feet above the desert ground, and it's a steep wall of sand that must be climbed. Eventually I reached the top and enjoyed the landscape while I caught my breath. It was an amazing scene. I loved the sharply defined ridge line, the lake that formed the western base of the big dune. I could see Mallard ducks swimming around in the lake. I could see the smaller dune I had climbed earlier, and the high desert country leading off to the snow capped mountains far to the north. Song birds trilled their songs in the air, the wind picked up a little, and that was all that I could hear. It was gorgeous out.
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It occurred to me, that I live a very damn good life. Here I was all alone on top of the largest dune in North America. It was a beautiful day, and peaceful. Good for the soul. I had all the time I wanted to explore this desert, this dune, to walk the ridgeline, and see the world from a unique perspective. I could make my photographs if the scene presented itself, but above all, I was exploring the world, and that’s my favorite thing to do. I was doing what I do best, and what I love to do. That’s a good feeling to have.
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Wouldn’t you know it, my camera battery died on top of the dune. I had taken a lot of photos the preceding days, and hadn’t recharged it. I coaxed a few more shots from it by letting it rest and turning it on again, but it wasn’t long before it completely died. So I put it away and carried on my explorations with one less thing to think about. I was impressed with this dune. It’s size and beauty made me realize that this is one of the most unique places in Idaho. Idaho has sand dunes, who knew? I decided to spend another day at the park, and spent it relaxing, taking photos, bird watching, reading and writing, excellent pastimes.
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The next day, I awoke early once again, and this time to the sound rain hitting my van. It was gloomy, and heavy rain clouds covered the land. I got up, and decided to head out. I had studied my atlas again, and saw that off to the south east that there was another scenic byway which led to a “Big Balanced Rock.” A likeable enough description, I wanted to check it out. I drove east along the banks of the Snake River, another great Idaho river. I turned onto Hwy. 30 the Thousand Springs scenic byway, and continued south east. It wasn’t long before I saw why the road was called that. On the far side of the Snake, a high rocky ridge had formed and from that ridge, at least a dozen white waterfalls poured down from the rock. It was great scenery for the drive, and I enjoyed it. I wish their was a park to stop at, but I didn’t see any.
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After I reached the town of Buhl, the ranchland and farms took over again, and I followed the signs driving another 20 miles through the agricultural area. Again, I thought, “How cool can this balancing rock be?” There were hardly any rocks anywhere, much less balanced ones. Eventually I saw the road leaving the flatland and curving down into a rocky valley. It was amazing, high rocky cliffs made up the walls of the valley on both sides of the road. At the bottom, there was a small park, and a sign indicating the balanced rock was another mile up the road. I drove on. I found the pull off, parked, and got out. There it was in all its glory, the balancing rock. The sign said it was 48 feet high and 40 feet wide, it’s base was only 3 feet by 17 inches wide, formed by differential weathering. I hiked up to the top of the bluff, and took some photos. I hiked around looking at all the cool rock formations and boulders that formed the top of the cliff. It was a really cool area to see, a great stop. I drove back to the little park in the bottom of the valley, and set about to explore it.
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The canyon had rock walls, and was filled with the songs of ravens, pigeons, magpies, ducks and eagles. It echoed my voice when I hollered, and made the bird song seem closer than they really were. The canyon had excellent ambiance. I played my banjo, an excellent instrument for a vagabond. I like playing the banjo, it sounds good in these western landscapes I like so much. It also sounded great in the canyon, it’s rhythmic sound resonated nicely off of the high rocky walls. I ate lunch and decided to go for a walk, to explore the canyon and see how far it went. It was a relatively narrow canyon, maybe 200 feet wide, and bounded by high rock cliffs on both sides. It looked like a rock climbers dream, full of lines, chimneys and high rock faces. The trail looked well used, and it was easy to follow as it meandered, following the small, slow moving river. I kept scaring ducks, and they’d fly off in a panic, their wing beaks, and “waks” exploding out of nowhere making me jump every time. I heard the scream of an eagle in the air, it echoed off of the walls and into my soul. It was the first time I’d heard one shriek like that, and it made the canyon seem wild and untouched. The clouds kept filtering the sunlight, beautifully lighting up the canyon scenes. I found a perfect composition and my photographic sense was fulfilled. I put my camera away. I continued on, going farther into the canyon, the trail became less defined, and deteriorated.
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I decided I had seen enough, and climbed high up above the trail at the base of the steep rock wall, where green grass made a comfortable seat to rest. I contemplated my day, reflecting on all of the amazing sights and scenes that southern Idaho has to offer. I felt completely at ease, I was in paradise, and knew how special this region is. I decided that Idaho was quickly becoming one of my favorite states and I wanted to see more of these amazing, hidden landscapes.

Posted by Rhombus 10:56 Archived in USA Tagged photography Comments (1)

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