I got up early Saturday morning and saw Orion and felt a deep melancholy darken the night. It was barely visible just coming up over the eastern horizon. The vision of him in the night sky may not mean much to some, but to me the great hunter signals fall and marks yet another year and the change of seasons.
Orion is a winter constellation, missing from the summer sky, but clearly visible when the frost lies deep. As the days become shorter and the cold becomes profound, the earlier it will rise. One of the best known and most recognizable star-patterns in the sky, Orion represents an heroic hunter of Greek myth.
Look for it if you're up early in late sumer. His belt is made of three very large white stars with two famous nebula, the Flame and Horsehead Nebula, located in the belt. In his sword one of the stars is actually the Orion Nebula - a cloud of gas and/or dust in interstellar space, but it is quite visible.
Orion also contains some of the best known stars in the sky, with perhaps the most famous being the variable red giant Betelgeuse, which marks Orion's left shoulder. Betelgeuse shines an amazing 60,000 times brighter than our sun and is about 600 times larger than our sun. You can see its redness with the naked eye. At his right shoulder is another variable star, this time blue in color, known as Bellatrix. At Orion's right foot is yet another famous star, blue like Bellatrix: the supergiant Rigel. These are the bluest and reddest stars in the sky.
Try to spot it - it is quite easy, and after several years you will look to the eastern sky and know time hurries on.
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Sadly, all good things must come to an end.
We threw everything in the truck knowing we didn't need order throughout the day or for the next night. We traveled north toward Moose Junction, but before leaving we "said goodbye" to the herd of buffalo located in the Park. Bellowing breathy mist in the cool morning air they gave us an interested nod and bid us a safe trip. It was a fitting end to the trip - I relished seeing them free and unfettered, just as they once roamed. I enjoy them in a hamburger too!
We crossed the Continental Divide knowing it was the last time. I think we crossed it about 10 times, usually at about 7000 feet so it wasn't too eventful, but nevertheless we did get around. The total drive was about 1900 miles.
Headed south down the Chief Washakie Trail along east side of the Winds we quickly reached Lander. Chief Washakie was a close friend of Jim Bridger who, as with most Indians of that era, has a sad story.
Just south of Lander many of the historic trails are quite evident and the BLM has created a bit of a linear park. We stopped several times and crossed the Pony Express route, the Mormon trail, the Oregon trail and various cut-offs and notable formations. Split rock was among the more interesting. As the land rose toward South Pass and the nights grew colder it was a landmark that could be seen for days as one traveled east to west and deeper into the sage. A pony express station was later located there. In this picture you can see the historic trails heading out over the sage near the location of the station. The Sweetwater is just to the left - a major source of water in the high desert along this section of the route.
I found these sego lilies nearby still watered by the blood, and the sweat and the piss, and the tears of those who suffered in this desert and whose bones were bleached white, and now blow around in the dust. Sego is the Shoshone word for "edible bulb".
We drove back to civilization leaving the wild places to those that habit them and the history to those who still look.
(to read about the entire trip select Wyoming Trip from the list on the left and start at the bottom - hope you enjoyed....and tell me your thoughts...)
Thursday, August 16, 2007
There are some things thrust upon us, some we bring on ourselves, and some things tip us spinning and careening into chaos. We view them as bad, we view them as good; and yet, we do not know the end. Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge.
A farmer named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, "Who can say what is good or bad?"
A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, "Who can say what is good or bad?"
Some time later, Sei Weng's only son, while breaking in the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng's misfortune. Sei Weng again said, "Who can say what is good or bad?"
Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng's lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed as Sei Weng's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, "Who can say what is good or bad?"
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
Beef Basin spread open like a book in the early morning light. The higher buttes lit up even more orange than usual, while the sage flats still retained a hint of inky blackness. A bit of chill still hung in the desert air. Numerous canyons feed onto the flats and choosing one to explore was as simple as following your feet. I had read that this place held promise for ruins and I was here searching for the Anasazi. After dinner, the night before, in the fading light I slowly walked around my campsite and began to find pottery shards; white with black woven designs, pinched, some colorless, and some quite large. I knew this place would indeed be special.
At just over 6000 feet this is high desert - the sun rays hot, boiling the summer and in winter the air bare and chilling. There was no one else here and no soul within at least 50 miles - maybe more. I was alone and I could experience this place through silence and solitude, much as those that lived did over 800 years ago. When the Anasazi last lived in these bright canyons Genghis Khan was marauding across the steppes of Mongolia, Europe was in the dark ages, and most men still lived not unlike the Anasazi, perhaps worse.
The Anasazi are not an ethnicity so much as a culture. We identify their building and their artifacts, but we know little about the people. Their disappearance during the 13th century is one of the great mysteries of American history and archeology. Their habitations go back for over 500 years and then vanish as they near the middle ages. There are many theories, but no agreement as to why.
One of the least understood facts for those who have not been to the Colorado Plateau is how expansive the ruins are. Everywhere I've been there are ruins. It is as if their civilization created a mighty extended city for hundreds and hundreds of miles. They seemingly lived everywhere and inhabited every corner. But, equally, one must understand that the Anasazi abandoned their settlements moving on to different lands; sometimes moving back into a place that had been left hundreds of years before, following the water and the desert shapes that tied them to their unknown mythology.
The Abajo mountains, to the south and east of Beef Basin, are the supposed location of some of the last remnants of the Anasazi. Whatever forced them to scatter brought them to this place. Where I was the canyon opens up into beef basin there is a small stream and a small ruin. It looks small and poorly built, but of extreme age. The streams in this country are mere dribbles appearing and disappearing - dependent upon the depth of the sand overlying the bedrock. This dribble ran into Beef Basin for about 50 yards and disappeared beneath the sage in a grassy green final breath.
One of the reasons I was here was to discover the water and how far I might wander in the future. Did the intermittent springs shown on the maps flow? How much country could I cover in one day? I knew how much I needed - about 3 liters during the day (or about 100 oz). The temperatures climbed to about 100 during the heat of the day with the ground temperatures being about 120. I wore a long-sleeved desert shirt, a wide brimmed hat and shorts and could climb and travel quickly throughout the greater part of the day mostly unaffected by the heat.
I believe my bones remember my youth. I was born into this world in the Mojave Desert and as a young boy played out in the heat in one of the hottest places in the continent. And, although I never fully connected the dots until recently, I have always loved the heat - a hot car, the full rays of the hot sun, or now; the baked quality of the desert at noon.
The canyon was neither deep nor wide, surrounded on each side by small, rough and broken sandstone cliffs varying between 20 and 60 feet capped by a gradually rising plateau on which grew pinion pine, juniper, and low-growing sage, but on which mostly plain, dry and cracked white clay soil lies giving way in places to swaths of loose sand. Sometimes, this upper plateau was capped by solid sandstone mounds, steeply sided, and devoid of vegetation, rising hundreds of feet above the pinion pine. The stream came and went in patches of green, life swirling around the nectar then ending in the dust and the heat.
What I had sought surprised me stopping me in my tracks, but it was far away and I was unsure of what I saw. I was accustomed to seeing cliff dwellings, but to see a tower rising out of the pinion was new to me. I raised my glasses and in excitement started in a run.
The canyon forked; the west side of the west fork was broken down, the cliff disappearing into a steep slope. At that place about 80 feet above the floor of the canyon stood an ancient tower. I approached, not up the obvious slope, but from small, deep "V" cut, directly to the north. I wanted to be secret, to surprise the stones, to walk up not as a tourist, but as a user.
The tower was not a single tower, but the tallest remaining tower left in a habitation of about 20 similar structures. What remained was about two stories tall and completely circular with a diameter of about 14 feet gradually decreasing in diameter going up at an angle of about 4 or 5 degrees. Each other structure was built against each other structure, not unlike mud dabber nests. To get into any one you had to travel through several low doorways. The construction was not tight and mortared, but well fit and loose. At one time the entire inside was plastered - small finger prints were visible still pressed into the dried mud; however, most of this covering had long since worn away. Two square structures occupied part of the small, flat area. I assumed them to be older, but partially rebuilt at some point.
I could see the Anasazi, baked by the sun, small of stature, rough-hewed, and smiling walking down to the intermittent stream, pot in hand - ducking out of the coolness of the narrow doorways, sitting on the same stone upon which I now sat. I saw what they saw. Looking up and down the canyon I wondered.
I spent some time in this quiet place and at last I squatted in the shadow of the tower collecting my pack and drinking in the coolness before I stepped back into the heat. I scanned the loose earth around me - shards here and there, juniper seeds - some black with age and some still deep purple. Something smooth, something different caught my eye, a glint of a brilliant white thin edge. I moved the dirt aside with my finger and a polished shell with a hole in the center came into view. It was about half the size of the tip of my small finger - 2 or 3 cm wide, tiny, thin, convex, and finely crafted. It was easy to see that is was once worn as part of a necklace. Perhaps with purple juniper berries and quills; perhaps with other beads and stones. I did not know, but it was lost over 800 years ago and now found its way into my hand!
I wondered if its end was violent, or accidental. Was it torn away or lovingly sought after? Did it represent love? Was its ending written in blood?
I was on BLM land and sites such as this are routinely robbed. I knew I had to take the bead, but I didn't know where. I put it in a tiny pocket on my upper sleeve seemly reserved for such small items. I carried it throughout what would become a magical day - a day the Anasazi mystified and delighted me - a day I walked in their shadow. My footprints that day, the smell, and the sun are driven into my memory; indelible and enduring, until I too go the way of the Anasazi.
Several days later I returned to Moab. Having been to the NPS HQ there to collect a permit for going into Salt Creek Canyon - a canyon full of cliff dwellings, I knew its location. I asked for the chief archaeologist and was soon shown into a small office with maps and file drawers scattered around the room. I showed her my treasure and she was quite surprised. I got a good scolding for removing the object, but I explained it wasn't located in the park, but in BLM land. She couldn't accept the treasure, but directed me to the BLM office.
Again, I found the Chief Archaeologist. This time, however, I did not get a cold greeting. She was thrilled I saved the bead and I gave her the exact coordinates of its final resting place. She carefully wrote down the information and copied my map. Before leaving I asked her to tell me what she knew about it.
She said it was a very special find because the bead was from an olivella shell. She explained, archaeologists often infer paths of past culture contact by sourcing artifacts. Marine shells have been used as indicators of culture contact across long distances. Modern geographical ranges of marine mollusks are virtually identical to the ranges that occurred in the recent past, and this allows archaeologists to determine the coast of origin of sea-shell artifacts recovered from inland sites. Unless there is evidence that the geographic range of an animal has changed, we can safely assume that current ranges are the same as those in the past. This shell was traded across the west from the coast of modern California! Rather all at once, or over time, no one can tell, but either way a fact not missed by the imagination. Goods were flowing back and forth across great distances 400 years before Europeans discovered the "new world" and I had held some of those goods and took it on perhaps its last journey.
I will go back to the Basin. I could spend an entire summer there, in the heat, wandering the canyons, climbing the cliffs, and searching for the soul of the past. The vastness and beauty filling my being with the unknown and the unknowable.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
Sadly, vacation was coming to a close, but we still had one good day in us. We wanted to get as far up into the Tetons as possible and a friend had recommended Death Canyon. Friend - Death Canyon? Well, there wasn't any death and the canyon was quite beautiful.
Thus far, Bridger had some fairly big walking days - into the 12 to 14 mile range, but this hike climbed steeply out of the plain defined by the Snake and into the teeth of some very rugged mountains. We weren't sure how far we would go.
We started out as early as possible vastly aided by the fact that we didn't have to pick up camp again. This was only the second time we stayed in one place for two nights. It was a short dive to the trailhead located at about 6,800 feet. Death Canyon is a classically carved, U-shaped, glacial valley ending in a lake (Phelps Lake) with a large lateral moraine on one side, most likely last formed during the Pinedale Glaciation. The moraine on the side of Phelps Lake must be descended on the way in and climbed up on the way out - an elevation of about 440 feet. A moose - deep in the brush and eating furiously, greeted us at the bottom of our descent. The trail was steep and rough ascending beside the newly melted snow crashing down the narrow valley. Spruce and fir grew scattered about mostly growing between exposed granite and the steeply sided meadows of low-growing shrubs and flowers. We were fortunate to see a female blue grouse with about 10 tiny chicks at close distance. Now, we had seen the entire of the family.
Eventually we reached a step in the upper valley; Alaska Basin, the stream slowed to a quick walk and the firs grew large. There we decided to go directly up the mountain to the pass high above. It was another 6 miles to the top of this valley on the existing trail and a 25 mile day might be too much for Bridger. This way, we could get him up high without so much walking, but it would be very steep walking.
The trial switch-backed up of the side of the north slope of the valley. We climbed for about 2 hours before reaching a small, lower saddle and then decided to try to reach a lesser peak located further up the trail. An easy climb lead to a snow covered saddle with the peak a short climb up a steep slope. A scramble up lead to Bridger's first summit -10,552. We returned - Bridger did about 17 miles with a climb of just about a mile.
Someday, perhaps we can take him up to the summit behind him in the photo - The Grand Teton.
Friday, August 03, 2007
Aside from Lake Titicaca, Yellowstone Lake, sitting at about 7,700 feet, is the largest high altitude lake in the world. It doesn't, however, have quite as good a name. We struck out early headed for Jackson Hole as we scooted through the Tetons too quickly the first time to get to Yellowstone. So, we had some unfinished business. It was then a driving day and Yellowstone Lake was the only thing we hadn't previously seen.
Aside from the usual few stops for some geothermal sites, a buffalo traffic jam, and a grizzly too far away to appreciate, it was a short drive to the Lake. One way to illustrate the size of the lake is that the Yellowstone River flows directly out of the lake as a very large, full blown, river. It's big, right away. Over geological time Yellowstone Lake has drained into the Pacific Ocean, the Arctic Ocean via Hudson Bay, but it now drains into the Atlantic via the Gulf of Mexico (via the Missouri and the Mississippi).The Lake is 20 miles long, 14 miles wide, and 320 feet deep at its deepest point averaging about 150 feet deep.
We left the lake and Yellowstone and drove toward Jackson.
Allow me a few reflections on Yellowstone. There is no doubt YNP is a special place - it is home to many "onlys" in the world, and even if some of the spectacles are located in other places, they are indeed rare. It is a unique and special place deserving of its reputation, but aside from the geothermal wonders and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone the place is no different than any one of hundred places I've been. The landscape is not spectacular, actually rather plain. The Winds, for example , are magnificently beautiful. Consider this: you could drop YNP in many places in Wyoming and quite possibly find only a handful of people, if any - not a million, plus. That very fact draws me to the other places. But, and this is big - what does makes the landscape unique is the variety and number of wildlife. I wish the surprise and wonder of those animals existed in more places. The draw of the wildlife is clear - people discuss the animals, stop for the animals, and clearly adore each sighting.
I'm beginning to think we've done ourselves a disservice.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
The first thing we did is head down to the Boiling River swimming hole for a dip; much of the intent being to get clean again, even if only for a little while. Wow, what a great swimming hole! A large boiling creek flows out next to the Yellowstone River then runs down into the cold water at various places along the bank. The boiling water is too hot to stand, but mixed with the cold water the overall experience is not unlike going from a sauna to snow and back again - it is awesome. We must have "swam" for an hour. Don't miss this if you're near North Yellowstone.
A quick breakfast and a walk around Mammoth Hot Springs finished out this area of Yellowstone. The main attraction at Mammoth Hot Springs is the terraces; however, we waited to see them until last. Heat, water, limestone, and rock fracture combine to create the terraces. Travertine is deposited as white rock, however the microorganisms and living bacteria create beautiful shades of oranges, pinks, yellows, greens, and browns. The Mammoth Hot springs are constantly changing. As formations grow, water is forced to flow in different directions creating a vast complex of tiers varying from white to dull gray. The Terraces, first described by the 1871 Hayden Survey (the same survey to stay at Steamboat Mountain - see day one), were given the name of White Mountain Hot Spring, even though they were well known and named before then. Obviously, the name didn't stick. The pictures aren't too great, but the overall effect and size of the terraces is really quite a sight. They cover a massive area just above town. By far, they are the largest in terms of size, in Yellowstone.
Our destination for the day was getting to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone heading toward the east along the Yellowstone River. Once again, it was a race to see everything, yet still get a campsite. North Yellowstone is a bit more mountainous with large, open parks and less burned areas and few geothermal features. It actually reminded me of the Winds River Mountains a bit. On one pull off we saw a large petrified tree which was still standing, the usual bison, great flowers, and, finally, the big kahuna - a grizzly. But, this wasn't just a plain grizzly, this was a mother with two cubs. She was sleeping and the cubs were somewhat sluggish, but it was great to see. We would come back to the same meadow later in the afternoon for the big show, but for now on to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to get a camp site and see the area. We did get a camp site although the sign said the campground was full. Yellowstone Falls was close.
The Canyon is simply amazing and very unique. I haven't seen anything quite like it. We drove around and saw it from every vantage point and took every trail up and down. The pictures tell half the story, but it is one of those sites that must be experienced in person. There are actually two falls in the canyon: the upper falls falls just over 100 feet, but the lower falls over 300. It is beleived that Jim Bridger was the first to see the falls in 1846. The falls were named in 1869, and in 1871 the Hayden Party explored, photographed, and painted the falls. Moran was the artist and the painting of the falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is perhaps his most famous painting as it was shown to congress and helped establish the Park. The painting is quite faithful to the real thing - color being the most surprising. The reds and yellows are truly spectacular.
After we exhausted every vista in the area Tammi suggested we go see if the grizzly was still there. We did, and she was. What a treat. We watched her and the cubs for about two hours - nursing, playing, fighting, and goofing around while mother dug for roots. We spent most of the time next to a biologist who knew everything about bears. His wife did detailed studies on the elk populations and the effect the wolves were having. The grizzlies have been aided by wolf kills too as they are mostly scavengers. He pointed out where the bears winter, what they eat, how far they ranged, how old the cubs were, and a million other interesting things. How often do you get to watch grizzlies and cubs while having a personnel guide? It was like a nature program, but you were there. We were, by the way, very close. I could have hit them with a well thrown rock - that's close!
We finally left and headed back camp. Another terrific day - the Boiling River, Mammoth Hot Springs, grizzlies, and The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.