Category Archives: Travel

Hotel in a Hurry

630 miles and his legs were cramping, his back was getting scoliosis, and his hypnotized eyes were following the dashed lines on the highway into dreamland. But even worse, the bran flakes he had for breakfast were sending musical telegrams through the borborygmus of his bowels. He felt the urge to find a room.

Elroy cranked the steering wheel into the first hotel he found.

Lockdowns and social distancing rules had recently ended, and cabin fever tourists like himself crammed the lobby. He had to wait a long time for his turn at the front desk, while tightening his butt cheeks. “Room for one, just for the night,” he blurted out to the petite young blonde behind the counter.

“Certainly, sir,” she typed something into the keyboard, then looked up from the monitor. “Will that be shitting or non-shitting?”

He was caught a bit off guard by that question, and just stood there staring blankly for a moment. “Excuse me?” he eventually queried.

“Shitting or non-shitting, sir?” the blonde smiled, all business-like, with fingers on her keyboard, poised for a reply.

“Uh, I don’t understand. What do you mean?”

“Well sir, if you choose non-shitting, then you’ll only be able to go #1 in your toilet, and not #2. If you do do a #2, you’ll be charged a $200 room freshening fee.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing before,” Elroy mused, feeling a little flushed with irritation. “But I’ve got to go, so of course I’ll choose shitting.”

“Very good, sir,” the pretty clerk cheerfully offered. “Now let’s see . . .” clackety-clack went her fingers, seemingly forever, as she gazed into the monitor, “ . . . looks like we have one shitting room left. That will be 50 extra dollars, for a total of $140, plus $53.75 in taxes and resort fees. So I’ll charge your card $193.75 for the night.”

This was well above Elroy’s budget. “Look,” Elroy remonstrated, “I’m not even going to get into it with you over the resort fee thing. Been there, done that, with other hotels. It ain’t right, but I know I can’t fight it. But this shitting room charge, this is ridiculous!” his voice rising with every syllable. “Who ever heard of charging someone $50 to take a shit?!!” Now he was kind of shouting. And he shook his fist in the air.

The smile on the pretty blonde’s face evaporated, as her lips pursed in fear. She took a step backward. “Sir . . . sir . . . I’m sorry but I don’t set the rates here,” her voice trembled. “Would . . . would you like . . . like to spe-speak with my supe-supervisor?”

Elroy hated to scare people, and immediately felt horribly ashamed at his outburst. But by-goddamnit, this shitting charge was an outrage! Still, it wasn’t her fault. She was just an employee following her training. He forcibly collected himself. He took inventory of his bowels. And he got an idea. He had noticed a supermarket about a block away, as he was driving to the hotel.

He lowered his voice and tried to reassure her. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he spoke with soothing tones. “It’s not your fault. Tell you what. I just now felt it go back up inside me, so I don’t think I’ll need a shitting room. I’ll take a non-shitter.”

And for a savings of $50, Elroy got himself a room. The first thing he did after he stepped inside, was rush into the bathroom, drop his trousers, and cut about five large loaves into the pellucid waters of the porcelain throne.

Fuck their shitting and non-shitting rooms, Elroy smugly concluded as he gasped with relief. Anyway, how would they know?

By the stink-ass smell, of course. But Elroy had a plan for that. As soon as he finished his business, he planned to walk down to that supermarket and buy a can of air freshener. Then he was going to spray the hell out of the bathroom. And God knows, it needed it. He crinkled his nose.

He stood up, flushed the toilet, and hitched up his pants. But suddenly, as the last gurgling gasps of the plumbing faded away, an alarm went off over his head.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!

It scared the crap out of him. Figuratively, of course, as his cannon had already spent its ammo. He looked up and spied a round device on the ceiling that resembled a smoke detector. He immediately sprang up onto the edge of the tub, in an attempt to reach this tattletale alarm and silence it.

But then came a thundunkerous pounding on his door.

He swung the door open and came face-to-face with the petite, blonde clerk. How the hell was this frail-looking thing able to knock so hard? he wondered.

“Sir, the stink alarm has gone off in your room,” she sternly advised him. “Did you take a shit in there?” Then the effluvium hit her and she twisted her face. “Eww, you did, didn’t you?”

“Please, I was desperate,” he begged. “I’m going to clean it up with air-freshener. I promise!”

But none of poor Elroy’s begging and pleading could sway her. Rules are rules and policies are policies. She was sympathetic but firm. His card would be charged an extra $200.

Learn a lesson from Elroy. Never choose a hotel in a hurry. Take time to check out all their fees and rules before you walk in their door. On top of exorbitant taxes, you may find a nebulous resort fee, an outrageous parking fee, wi-fi fees, early check-in fees, early departure fees, late-arrival lockouts, cancellation fees, minibar charges, extra person fees, fridge fees, linen fees, and yes, even toilet paper fees.

You could even be charged for writing a bad Yelp review.

Elroy’s story is fictional. So far, I’ve never heard of shitting and non-shitting rooms. But I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that is next. And if it should happen to you, my advise is to lay off bran flakes, and all other forms of roughage, for a few days before your trip. You can always have an enema after you return home.

This tip alone could save you hundreds of dollars.

The Swamp Creature

Geologists claim there’s nothing like it anywhere else on Earth. It’s only 5,000 years old, and a baby by geological measures. But its Brobdingnagian size belies its infancy. Technically it’s a river, but not just any kind of river. Geologists describe it as a sheetflow river. And its sheetflow nature has morphed it into a freakishly overgrown swamp creature.

A sky’s-eye view of the sheetflowing swamp creature.

It’s 60 miles wide and a hundred miles long. It flows at the average rate of a half mile a day, though some parts require years to traverse from source to ocean. It’s so large it creates its own ecosystems. These are mostly sawgrass marsh, but there also islands of tropical hardwood hammock, and areas of pineland, cypress, mangrove, and coastal prairie. These ecosystems gradually form, then disappear, then reemerge in different areas, under the control and caprice of the swamp creature.

Nobody knows just what this swamp creature is, but in 1773 a British cartographer named John Gerard de Brahm, gave it the name River Glades. But under the southern drawl way of pronouncing things, this name gradually evolved into Everglades, by 1823.

Mangroves at Coot Bay Pond, Everglades National Park, Florida.

The broad floodplain of the Kissimmee River empties into a vast, nine-foot-deep puddle of water called Lake Okeechobee. At 730 square miles, it dominates south Florida, and is second only to Lake Michigan as the largest natural freshwater lake contained entirely within the contiguous 48 states.

Lake Okeechobee from my United Airlines window seat. Ain’t window seats wonderful?

During south Florida’s wet season, from May to October, the waters of Lake Okeechobee spill over like coffee from a distracted barista. The overflow creeps southward, replenishing the River Glades, and maintaning the life of the swamp creature. Its porous limestone bed absorbs this moisture like a Brawny paper towel, storing it and sustaining the river throughout the dry season.

An egret at Mrazek Pond, Everglades National Park.

A slight rise in the land, called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, protects the Miami area from the flooding fingers of the swamp creature. It forces the River Glades to ooze south and west on its sluggish creep to the ocean.

It terminates reluctantly in the Atlantic waters of Florida Bay, at the murky south and southeastern edges of the Florida peninsula. The brackish water surrounds hundreds of islands, and is drank by thick forests of red, black, and white mangroves. Here, vast beds of turtle grass and algae, feed sea turtles and manatees.

Flamingo Beach, on Florida Bay, Everglades National Park.

This swampy region is so enormous, it generates its own thunderstorms. Hot, moist summer air convects from its middle and moistens its edges with downpours. And so it can be said that the swamp creature has a life of its own.

Believe it or not, before the swamp creature was born, this area was much like a desert. Native Americans settled this arid land, and hunted giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, and spectacled bears. But climate change and overhunting drove these animals to extinction.

Egrets foraging in one of the drier areas of Everglades National Park. Egrets seem to be very common in Florida. About as common as regrets in Nevada.

Around 3,000 BC, shifting weather patterns gave birth to the swamp creature. The natives had to adapt. They formed the Calusa people to the north and west, and the Tequesta people to the south and east. The swamp creature was not friendly to humans, so they lived mainly in coastal villages. Then about 400 years ago an alien invaded, called the Spaniard, and these aliens decimated the two tribes, as well as other tribes in Florida.

Yet another damned egret. But wait? Is that a crocodile in the water, waiting for its meal to come closer? We couldn’t tell, and it appears the egret is also a little uncertain.

After this, the Creek people from the north invaded Florida and assimilated with what remained of the original tribes. They soon became a new tribe, known as the Seminole. Around the same time, escaped slaves and free blacks settled nearby, and intermingled with the Seminole. They became known as Black Seminoles, and to this day claim Native American heritage.

I call this the Purple-People-Eater Bird. But in this case, I think it’s trying to avoid being eaten.

The United States waged three wars against the Seminoles, both red and black. The first two resulted in thousands being removed from Florida and relocated in what is now Oklahoma. But about three to five hundred natives escaped south to the spongy grounds of the Everglades. There they were absorbed by the swamp creature, where they had to learn to adapt to the wet way of life.

The United States fought them again, in the Third Seminole War, which lasted from 1855 to 1859. But the swamp creature protected them, and U.S. forces, weary of slogging through the vast, inhospitable muskeg, finally gave up and left them alone.

These pelicans, in Mrazek Pond, were bullying the egrets, while trying to corner the market on the pond’s fish.

Incredibly, they remained in the Everglades, untouched and wild for the next hundred years. But finally they made peace with the federal government, in 1957. Today the Seminoles occupy a reservation in south Florida, where they mire their invaders in the swampy slough of casino gambling.

The Everglades plays host to a variety of long-necked, long-billed birds. These two are foraging near Flamingo Beach, at Florida Bay.

In the 1900s a determined effort was made by humans to drain the great swamp and develop it into farmland and housing. To some extent this succeeded, and the Everglades began to dry up. But fortunately, some people loved the swamp creature and fought to protect it. The writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas was especially effective, and her efforts at public persuasion helped lead to the dedication of Everglades National Park in 1947.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull stands guard over Florida Bay.

Since that time, billions have been spent restoring the Everglades. Today, the swamp creature is protected by Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area, and other preserves, sanctuaries, state forests, and wildlife management areas.

Nine-Mile Pond, in Everglades National Park, is a beautiful start to a canoe trail. But before plopping your canoe into the water, be sure to scan around for lurking danger.

Yes, the newborn and revivified swamp creature continues to soak the earth in south Florida. Ecotourism, designed to protect the environment while allowing humans to enjoy it, has become a big industry. People can visit this lush, unique, sprawling creature by car, airboat, canoe, and on foot. But I recommend you pack a can of DEET.

And while watching out for alligators, water moccasins, and invasive pythons, tread carefully and treat this land gently. After all, it’s just a baby.

Shh. Don’t disturb this sleeping gator at Nine-Mile Pond.

The Florida Keys

The Florida Keys is an archipelago that descends like stepping stones toward Cuba. I’ve always felt curious about these islands and the viaducts that connect them. So one of my dreams was fulfilled recently when I drove the Overseas Highway (U.S. Highway 1), from Key Largo to Key West.

On our way down the Keys we stopped at Long Key State Park, at Mile Marker 67.5, and hiked the Golden Orb trail. This trail was named after the Golden Orb spider, which at one time covered this island with millions of webs. But on September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma flooded Long Key with an eight-foot storm surge that wiped out almost all of the arthropods. They’re slowly creeping back, but are still fairly rare.

The Keys were first charted by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. “Key” comes from the Spanish word cayo, meaning small island.

For centuries after de Leon, you had to have a boat or good swimming arms to reach the Keys. But then the United States took Panama from Columbia, and in 1905 began constructing the Panama Canal. This gave an entrepreneur named Henry Flagler an idea. Flagler was filthy rich, having been the founder of Standard Oil. Key West has a deep-water port, and Flagler decided that if he ran a railroad to Key West, he could take advantage of trade coming through the canal from the West Coast.

A creek on the Golden Orb trail.

Four thousand men battled mosquitoes, crocodiles, and hurricanes for seven years, constructing this railroad. It was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World when it finally opened in 1912. One year later, Flagler fell down a flight of stairs and died at age 83.

Long Key is largely undisturbed by humans (unlike me), and provides an opportunity for hikers to see the Keys in their natural state.

The automobile was gaining in popularity around this time, and in 1921 the Miami Motor Club came up with the zany idea of building a highway to Key West, alongside the railroad. They hoped it would attract tourists, revenue, and growth. They were right.

By 1928 a two segment highway had been constructed. The first segment allowed motorists to drive from Key Largo about 35 miles to Lower Matecumbe Key. Then they had to take a 41-mile ferry ride to No Name Key, which I believe was named after Clint Eastwood. From there they could drive about 35 more miles to Key West.

The forest canopy along Long Key’s Golden Orb trail. The Florida Keys is the northern boundary for many tropical trees common to the Caribbean.

Nobody likes having to take a ferry boat. So impatient motorists pressured the government to connect these two highway segments. But who would do the work? Well, let’s step back to 1924. In that year, Congress passed a bill over President Coolidge’s veto, to pay a bonus to World War I veterans, for their war service. But the catch was, they had to wait until 1945 to cash in these bonuses.

Then the Great Depression hit, and in the early 1930s unemployed veterans laid siege upon Washington D.C., demanding early payment of their bonuses. President Hoover had them driven off with bayonets and tear gas, and the bad press this generated helped cost him his reelection bid against Franklin Roosevelt.

Bahia Honda Bridge, and the beach at Bahia Honda State Park, at Mile Marker 36. “Bahia Honda” means Deep Bay in Spanish. This bridge is part of the original railroad, and was very challenging to build back in the early 1900s, due to its more than 5,000 foot length, and the 30 foot deep channel it spans.

Roosevelt knew what to do about the rebellious veterans. He started the New Deal, and put them to work on the Overseas Highway, promising them an early bonus payment upon completion of their work. This shut them up and got them out of Washington.

By 1935, these veterans were hard at work in the Upper Florida Keys, on bridge construction. But on Labor Day, 1935, a monstrous Category 5 hurricane struck. A train was sent to evacuate the veterans, but was too late. 200 of these vets drowned in an 18-foot storm surge. Altogether, 400 to 700 people in the Florida Keys perished from this natural disaster. To this day it remains the most powerful hurricane on record to make a direct hit on the Keys.

The Bahia Honda bridge was originally for trains. But after the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, a highway was built over the top of the trestles.

The hurricane damaged Flagler’s railroad so badly, it was abandoned. So the government decided to abandon the dead veterans’ work and take over the abandoned railroad. They built the middle connection of the Overseas Highway upon the railroad’s bridge trestles. And by 1938, a fully connected highway allowed automobile travel to Key West without requiring a ferry.

These days the Bahia Honda Bridge is deemed too derelict to safely travel over. But you can still walk it for about 100 yards up and get a nice view of Bahia Honda Key. To the left is the new Overseas Highway that replaced the original highway in the 1970s.

The Overseas Highway starts in Key Largo, at around Mile Marker 113. Mile Markers are used in the Keys to denote addresses. For instance, the first gas station you encounter is a Shell station, with the address 106501 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL. This means it’s 106.5 miles from the terminus of the highway in Key West, since Mile Marker 0 is at Key West.

But the Keys extend further west than Key West, speckling the Gulf of Mexico for about 70 more miles out to the Dry Tortugas. However, to get to these islands beyond Mile Marker 0, you must take a boat or plane.

Key West from the end of the White Street pier. A monument at the corner of Whitehead and South St, on Key West, claims to be the southernmost point of the continental United States, but this pier is even further south, by a few hundred feet. The actual southernmost point is probably located on Ballast Key, about 10 miles west of Key West. Key West is 77 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, and 94 miles from Cuba.

Hurricanes seem to pose the greatest danger to residents of the Florida Keys, and I imagine bankruptcy is a close second. Homes are damned expensive there, so I wonder how many residents have gone bankrupt after their life savings have been blown or washed away?

In 1998, Hurricane Georges battered the Lower Keys, causing widespread damage and flooding. In 2005, the Keys were triple-punched by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. They only brushed these islands, but came close enough to cause extensive damage. And on September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key. She destroyed a quarter of the homes on the Keys, and caused major damage to another two-thirds.

The Blue Hole, on Big Pine Key. Looks green to me. This is an abandoned rock quarry that filled with water. Notice the alligator?

Imagine being ordered to leave your home with just a few hours notice to pack whatever you can into your car. And when you return, you don’t know if you’ll find your house intact, in tatters, or in the ocean. Many people retire in the Keys, but the constant worry of hurricanes is not my idea of relaxed living.

An iguana sunning itself on a coral rock, by the beach at Long Key State Park. We were told that Floridians are encouraged to kill iguanas, because they’re an invasive species. But aren’t we humans invasive, too? So since my wife and I were not contemplating suicide, we left the iguanas we encountered, unharmed.

The Keys are flat as pancakes, offering scant high-ground refuge from storm surges. Most Caribbean islands are volcanic, with mountains and hills. But the Keys are made of ancient coral reefs and limestone, which don’t attain high elevations. The highest point in the Florida Keys is just 18 feet above sea level, at Windley Key. That’s not much of a view.

But below sea level the view can be spectacular. The Great Florida Reef is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. And it’s the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world, after the Great Barrier Reef, and the Belize Barrier Reef. The best of it is found off the coast of Key Largo. And scuba divers come from across the globe to enjoy it, making Key Largo the Dive Capitol of the World. Yeah, it’s a real dive.

An osprey at Bahia Honda State Park. This bird was a good fisher. We saw it carrying a big, long fish, but unfortunately my camera was not handy at the time. It’s the photo that got away.

We drove the entire length of the Overseas Highway, and spent four days and nights on Little Torch Key, at Mile Marker 28.5. The balmy February weather was a pleasant change from the cooler climate we came from. And most importantly, it wasn’t hurricane season.

With that fact in mind, we were able to relax and enjoy our stay.

Nap time.

Green Unicorns

My wife and I recently traveled to Florida to hunt unicorns. We figured the definitive place to stalk these creatures was at that one-horned appendage hanging off the southeast corner of our continent.

And we were right. We found plenty of unicorns in the Sunshine state, of many strange and different varieties. And the most unusual was a green scaly beast called a “gator”.

We hired a man with an airboat to take us into the Everglades, as I wasn’t too keen on hiking in with waders. He called himself Captain Bocephus, and he claimed to know where all the gators were hiding. And he was right. Cap’n Bo knew how to scare up a passel of ‘em.

My wife scanning the swampland for alligators.

Actually, he called them out, making a crying “Owww, Owww, Owww” noise, that he claimed was the sound of a baby alligator in distress. Apparently, female alligators have powerful maternal instincts, and quickly come to the call of baby alligators in need of rescue.

This is a relatively small specimen. The average adult American alligator weighs 790 pounds, and is 13 feet long. You can guestimate the head-to-tail length by measuring the distance from the nostrils to the eyeballs. The distance in inches is the length in feet. I recommend wearing a suit of armor while measuring. The longest gator ever recorded was found in Louisiana, and measured 19.2 feet.

Males are attracted by this call, also. But not for the purpose of protecting the babies. They want to eat them.

Alligators belong to the crocodilian family, whose species are commonly known as alligators, crocodiles, gharials, and caimans. I asked this crocodilian, “Hey, are you a caiman?” He replied, “Yeah, I’m alright. Thanks, man.”

I’d never seen an alligator in the wilds before, so you can imagine my horripilation when these giant water lizards swam up to edge of the low-decked airboat, within feet of my feet.

I guess I shouldn’t have been scared. Hell, this bird wasn’t. Since 2010, there have been only eight recorded fatal alligator attacks in the United States. Two fatalities involved women who were walking their dogs. Apparently, dogs make good alligator bait. One man was killed and eaten while burglarizing homes. And another man taunted an alligator, then jumped in the water to swim while ignoring alligator warning signs, and the pleas of friends not to swim. The gator grabbed this stupid fucker and drowned him. Darwin won again.

But Cap’n Bo reassured that they were more afraid of us than we were of them. And that in all his years of commanding an airboat, no alligator had ever jumped onto the deck. Yet. Even though they easily could, I thought I heard him utter as an aside.

This guy came so close, and seemed so docile, I felt an urge to reach out and stroke its back and rub its scales. But much as I wanted to pet the saurian beast, I suspected it might prefer my arm more as a meal than as a masseur.

It was uncanny how many gators were attracted to the airboat. Cap’n Bo would shut off the engine in the midst of a swampy canal, and then scan for alligators, while making his baby gator distress calls. And he always spotted them before my wife and I could see them. They’d be making a beeline straight for the boat, their heads forming a V-shaped wake. And they were possessed with an eagerness that belied hunger, and the expectancy of a dinner of fine delicacies.

One of the swampy canals Cap’n Bo motored us through, in search of alligators.

“I don’t feed ‘em, of course,” Cap’n Bo emphasized. “Why, if I were to be caught feeding ‘em, I’d be fined bigtime, my boat would be confiscated, and I’d lose my license.”

Alligators will eat anything, according to Cap’n Bo. But mainly they eat frogs, fish, snakes, turtles, muskrats, birds, dogs, panthers, deer, black bears, and each other. Sometimes they even eat rocks. These provide ballast in their bellies, for stable floating.

And yet those gators would vigorously bump the boat with their noses, acting as if they wanted something. Could a baby alligator distress call be that compelling to these mammoth killers?

Nobody knows just how long alligators live, but some estimates go over a hundred years. The oldest known alligator in captivity is 83 years old.

If so, the mothering instinct of an alligator is not to be underestimated. Like grizzly bears, don’t come between a female alligator and her offspring. She has a heart as big as a tree stump, and jaws powerful enough to give you four stumps.

Female alligators protect their young for about a year. They mate in April and May, although sometimes the males have difficulty “getting it up.” This is known as a reptile dysfunction. Females build nests in the summer, when they lay their eggs. If the incubation temperature of an egg goes above 86 degrees, the offspring will be a male. Lower temperatures produce females. About five females are hatched, for every male.

If not, then Captain Bocephus is a big fat liar, who secretly feeds these swamp lizards, so he can show them off to tourists. But no matter. We were impressed either way.

Alligators are found as far north as the Carolinas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and as far west as East Texas. Louisiana has the most gators, with Florida a close second, accommodating more than a million gators apiece. Southern Florida is the only area where both alligators and crocodiles live side-by-side.

As the tenebrous fingers of twilight grasped our swampy surroundings, Cap’n Bo fired up the fan and motored us out onto an open grassy area. He pointed the airboat toward the setting sun, where we watched a ball of fire sink into the Everglades. It was romantic.

Sunset over the Everglades.

Finally, through the wind-chilled dusk, and clouds of gnats and skeeters, we raced over reeds toward the shoreline dock. Our paid hours were up, and it was time for us landlubbers to return to our element.

We’d had a successful day of unicorn hunting. But we knew we could bag more, in the fantastic flatlands of Florida. We just needed some sleep.

Ain’t it cute? We fell in love with alligators during our boat ride. It’s nice to know they’ve been around for 37 million years. Crocodilians and birds are the only animals left on earth that descended from dinosaurs. With the possible exception of unicorns.

Goodbye Yellowstone Roads

We said goodbye to the Yellowstone roads, as we drove them for one last time, on a Sunday afternoon. And after nearly a week of family reunion and sightseeing at Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, it was time to go the hell home.

We got our abrazos and valedictions out of the way in the evening. That way I could give my hungover relatives a chance to sleep in, while my wife and I hit the road early the next morning. I’m sure they appreciated that.

And we appreciated their company. They added to our Yellowstone experience, making our memories fuller and richer. I’m thankful for their presence.

Gratitude is a good thing, so I have some more thank you’s to pass out.

I want to thank the American taxpayer. If you pay taxes, thank you for the $4.27 that the average taxpayer contributes annually to our parks.

And I want to express my gratitude to our hosts at these two national parks. Both parks seemed orderly, very clean, and well-managed. So thank you, park rangers.

But they weren’t the true hosts. It’s the true hosts I want to thank the most. These would be the permanent residents of the parks. The animal kingdom citizens that contribute so much to the character of this wilderness.

They’re not hunted, and seem to possess little fear of humans. And so they went about their business, paying scant attention to all their biped admirers that slowed their cars or gathered in throngs by the sides of roads. And they nonchalantly and unwittingly posed for quite a few pictures for me, and so many others.

The following is a photographic tribute to the animals that hosted our visit. Thanks all you critters, both large and small, for your hospitality, and for putting on so many interesting and entertaining shows. (Except you, mosquitoes. You know what you did.)

A black bear crossing Cottonwood Creek near Jenny Lake, in Grand Teton National Park. Thank you bear, for ignoring me, and not eating me.

This fearless pheasant was captured walking on a fence rail on Fairy Falls Trail, near Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Hot Spring.

A mule deer that has apparently never known the terror of hunting season. We encountered her while hiking around Mud Volcano, in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley.

Canadian Geese beyond the steamy mist of Beryl Hot Spring, in Yellowstone.

I like bison, because they’re related to gnus. This gnu cousin in the Hayden Valley was rubbing up against the pine tree behind him. I don’t know bison well, but he kind of appeared ready to charge, when I snapped this photo. I can take a hint. I quickly got the hell out of there, retreating to my car.

While shooting bison like I was Buffalo Bill, I quickly recalibrated my camera to macro mode, to capture this Monarch butterfly. My next few shots of buffalo were also in macro mode. #%$*!

A marmot on a rocky hillside, behind Grand Geyser, in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

The best shot I could get of an osprey, hovering over the Firehole River at Biscuit Basin. This raptor put on an aerial acrobatic show for a gathering crowd, as it swooped, circled, and plunged into the water, searching for fish.

A duck in a buffalo watering hole, in the Lamar Valley.

A couple of bull elk by Yellowstone’s Madison River. It was rutting season, and one of the elk is calling some nearby females to join him for a party.

These guys were all over Yellowstone, and could be seen as reliably as Old Faithful. In fact, this chipmunk lives near some hot springs in the Upper Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful.

Old Faithful and Young Asshole

The Old Faithful area of Yellowstone is like a little town. It has souvenir shops, general stores, a hotel, a visitor center, a gas station, and about a thousand acres of parking lot.

You’d think parking would be easy, but the first day we tried to go there, the park rangers had half the parking lots closed. I don’t know why. But maybe that’s why they’re called “park” rangers.

The next try, we were successful. We found parking, but it was a long way from that famous teapot known as Old Faithful. My wife, Kay, and my sister-in-law, Connie, put on backpacks filled with snacks and water, for the long hike. My brother, Rowan, just carried his ever-present coffee mug. Which could also have been named Old Faithful.

I carried my camera and camera bag. And I also wore four layers of clothes, because it was in the frickin’ 40’s that early in the morning. My camera bag is very roomy, and I can use it for other things, besides cameras. Such as for storing my layers after I shed them, as the day warmed. My bag is sort of like a man purse. Or murse.

Wiley Jr is a real shutterbug. He carried not one, but two cameras. But no camera bag. And no backpack, either. One of his cameras is modern and lightweight, except for the one-ton bazooka zoom lens attached to it. The other is an old film camera, that would weigh a ton even without a big zoom lens. Yet it, too, was equipped with a giant heavy zoom. Like I say, he’s a real shutterbug, and is very much into photography.

But no worries. He’s young and strong, and if he’s willing to drape two cinder blocks around his neck, I figured more power to him.

So off we trudged toward Old Faithful, each with our own burdens dangling under our chins and off our backs.

The big teapot was a few minutes late. But when it went off, Wiley and I snapped a ton of photos as it sputtered, shot upward, and hosed the sky with its boiling hot gusher of water.

We watched this world famous geyser erupt three times. A large crowd begins to gather about a half-hour before the expected eruption. Rowan, ever the comedian, worked the crowd. He explained how geysers work. He said that park rangers operate large pumps below the surface. And when Old Faithful didn’t erupt at the exact, predicted time, Rowan sighed and opined, “Yep, that’s government for ya.”

After the excitement of the geyser died down, Rowan suggested we walk some of the trails in the area.

The Old Faithful area is also known as the Upper Geyser Basin. It’s loaded with hundreds of geysers and hot springs. And the roiling, Firehole River winds through it, gathering the boiling waters that spill from the earth.

The Firehole River. Or perhaps it’s one of the Five Rivers of Hades.

A reticulated network of trails and bridges covers the Upper Geyser Basin, with miles upon miles of hiking opportunities. Most of these trails are paved or boardwalk. They’re easy to walk, but seem labyrinthine and endless. I got the impression that you can hike all day and might not explore all the available footpaths.

But I was up to hiking some of it, and so was everyone else. So we shouldered our various burdens and followed Rowan through this wonderland of steam and boiling liquid.

Heart Spring and Lion Geyser. Unlike Rowan’s explanation, geysers actually come from hot water, heated by the underground magma of volcanoes (remember, Yellowstone is a volcano).

We did a lot of walking, and it was getting tiring. But an hour into it I was still having a great old time with my family, snapping hundreds of photos of all the natural marvels bubbling up from the ground. But if I had realized that Wiley Jr was as cunning as a coyote, perhaps I would have been more circumspect.

He walks up with his film camera in hand. “Hey Uncle Tippy! I’m out of film and don’t need this camera anymore. Can I put it in your camera bag? It’s getting kind of heavy.”

I imagined so. That fucking barbell must have been breaking his neck. But he’s the young asshole who brought it. And he’s the stupid son-of-a-bitch who didn’t bother to bring along a camera bag or backpack. Why the hell would he expect me to carry his lead weight?

Lion Geyser, erupting. The magma-heated water of a geyser passes through a narrow channel on its way to the earth’s surface. But heavier, cooler water at the top of the channel caps the heated water. This pressurizes it, allowing it to heat up to the boiling point. And when it boils, it flashes into steam, violently forcing the water up the channel, and erupting into a geyser.

But I’m a fucking idiot, too. I have a hard time telling people no sometimes. And I really liked Wiley. Up until this point. He was always so nice and well-mannered.

I peered inside my camera bag, looking for an excuse. I prevaricated.“Uh, let’s see . . . um, um, nope, I don’t think I have enough room here.” And that made me look stupider than hell, because there was all kinds of room in the bag, which Wiley could clearly see. But I was saving that room to store my layers.

The cunning Wiley seized upon my stupidity before I could come up with a better excuse. “Yeah, sure Uncle Tippy,” he helpfully offered, “You’ve got all kinds of room in there. How about here?” And in he thrust the camera. I immediately felt a tugging strain upon my neck.

A colorful hot spring near the edge of the forest.

Well fuck. Just fuck. Goddamn that asshole!

I silently bore my new burden like I was Christ at the 12 stations. I staggered from hot spring to hot spring, geyser to geyser, with my own geysers of hot sweat pumping off my neck.

Meanwhile, Wiley was delightfully skipping way ahead so he could take the time to compose his photos with his digital camera, using all kinds of complicated special settings. Little fucker.

Grand Geyser. The column of steam and water at the left is in constant eruption. But the main geyser erupts every 7 to 15 hours. It’s the tallest predictable geyser known, achieving heights up to 200 feet (Old Faithful averages 145 feet).

I was getting worn out. But the coffee drinkers learned that the nearest pit toilet was more than a mile further down the trail. So we doggedly headed for it, me bringing up the rear with my extra burden, dragging feet, and lack of urgency.

There are two kinds of geysers: Pool geysers, which erupt through pools of water, in violent bursts; and cone geysers, which erupt in steady, tall streams. Old Faithful is a cone geyser. And these are a few other examples of the cone variety.

By the time I arrived at the toilet, the late-morning sun had raised the mercury to the 80s. Everyone had already relieved themselves, and was sitting on a log, waiting for me while eating lunch.

This is a pool geyser. Notice the narrow channel in the middle, just waiting to spew forth superheated water?

I was on the verge of a heat stroke with my four layers of jacket, vest, shirt, and teeshirt. I decided to put on a demonstration for Wiley. I removed the camera bag from my neck, with a stagger of exaggerated weariness (but I didn’t have to exaggerate much). I exclaimed to no one in particular, “I’m about to die here, with all these layers. I need a place to store them.”

Wiley said nothing. Acted as if he didn’t even notice. The unconscious prick.

The erupting waters of a small, pool geyser.

So I did a striptease for him. I removed my jacket, then my vest, then both shirts. And, while barechested, I mused aloud about how little room there was in my camera bag, for these articles of clothing.

The young asshole stared off into space, as if he was in another world.

Giant Geyser has an unusual shape. It formed in a group of trees, resulting in a cone shaped like a hollowed out tree trunk.

Making a big show of it, I rolled my jacket up super tight, and searched for any available space in my camera bag. And I surprised myself. I found room. I repeated this process with my vest, straining dramaturgically. And again I found room. And I found room for the teeshirt too, goddamnit.

Granted, it took great effort to stuff the clothes in, and they stuck about halfway out of the bag. But there was room.

Now Wiley had no reason to act on my hints and volunteer to take his one-ton camera back. I was stuck.

Another example of the many colorful hot springs at Yellowstone.

We slogged back to the car, over long miles of trail, sidewalk, and parking lot, before I could finally remove the yoke from my neck. I mentioned to Rowan what a lazy bastard his grandson was. With burden lightened, my mood lightened. We both laughed about it.

But I made a mental note. Watch out for Wiley Cody, Jr. That nice, well-mannered little fucker is one cunning coyote.

Geysers are very rare geological phenomena. They only occur in volcanic areas, and only with a small percentage of volcanoes. Most geysers require the presence of rhyolite rock. This rock dissolves in hot water, forming a mineral called geyserite. The geyserite cements and seals the channel walls of the geyser, preventing them from breaking down during eruptions.

Motorhomes Vs. Motels

The Grand Prismatic Spring, at Yellowstone National Park, from above. To get a shot of this spring in all its colorific glory, conditions must be perfect. You must have a clear sky and warm temperatures. And you must capture it in the afternoon, when only a little steam is coming off it. Unfortunately, all the parking spots were taken at this time of day, so I had to rely upon Wikipedia for this polychromatic picture. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0. https://sites.google.com/site/thebrockeninglory/.

My brother, Rowan, is a motorhome fanatic. Over the course of his life he’s owned various kinds of camping vehicles, including travel trailers, pop-up trailers, and fifth-wheels. But his preference is the Class C motorhome.

He hates motels.

And I hate motorhomes.

Rowan, my grandnephew Wiley, and I hiked the Fairy Falls trail to reach this overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring. This shot was taken by me at about 8:30 am, with the temperature in the 50’s. Unfortunately the sun is too low, the spring is too steamy, and the air is not warm enough, to bring out the prismatic colors.

One problem with a motorhome is that everywhere you drive it, there it is. It’s a big, giant behemoth that doesn’t fit well into parking spaces, and that requires awkward and time-consuming unhooking and then hooking back up, every time you leave a campsite and return.

That’s why our car came in so handy during our Yellowstone trip. My wife, Kay, and I stayed in a cabin, in an RV park, while my brother hooked his motorhome up to a campsite in the same park. Every day, he and his family climbed into the back of my Outback, and off we’d go sightseeing. We left his atrocity-on-wheels behind, connected to its life support.

Rowan has been trying to convince me for years, to buy one of these snail shells. But I hate the idea of owning a motorhome. When I go on a road trip, I like to relax. But I imagine if I was driving one of those awkward galoots, I’d be constantly worried about sideswiping some bastard in my blind spot, or cutting a corner and taking out a stop sign, or backing over a troop of girl scouts.

I was able to catch a hint of iridescence with this shot.

But he found a way to tempt me. He told me that motorhome travel saves a ton of money over expensive motels. Now that’s the way to my heart. Money.

And he has a point. Motels are getting to be damned costly these days. If you want to stay at a motel where you don’t have to hide a pistol under your pillow, or use anti-itch creme after you get out of bed, or call the front desk for a plunger at 2:00 am, you have to put up a small ransom.

Generally, a halfway decent motel room will set a traveler back about $150 per night.

The runoff from Grand Prismatic creates a wide, foliated field of mineral-rich mud.

Rowan has also pointed out that I can save a lot of money on meals when owning a motorhome, by getting my wife to fix dinner rather than restaurants. But for some reason, Kay is not as enthusiastic about this point, as me.

My brother is a good salesman. However I like to analyze. And I’ve known Rowan since I was a kid. Even though he’s now a tax pro, I’ve never felt confident with his math. So I decided to put his claims under a microscope.

I put a spreadsheet together to analyze the financial pluses and minuses of owning a motorhome, versus using motels. I factored in the extra cost of fuel, driving these gas guzzlers, along with the cost of renting campsites; against savings in motel rooms and dining expenses.

A ground’s eye view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

I won’t get into the weeds with every boring detail. I’ll just summarize. So you can save your nap for later. My spreadsheet indicates that on a typical 300-mile road trip day, I’d save a whopping $153 by driving a motorhome, as opposed to staying at a motel.

Zounds!

So this is why I see so many tin cans on wheels out there on the highway. The Great American Tourist has figured out a nifty way to save money. I felt like a chump not having purchased a motorhome years ago.

The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world. It is 370 feet wide, and 160 feet deep.

But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t finished my analysis. Motorhomes don’t just cost money when being driven. They also cost money when they’re parked in a driveway. Which for most owners is about 345 days out of the year.

So I put my numeracy skills to work again, and crunched more numbers.

First, a brand new, standard-sized Class C motorhome, of about 20-30 feet long, costs an average of about $75,000. If that $75,000 is invested in blue-chip stocks instead, it will earn about 6% annually. This is called opportunity cost. By shelling out $75,000 for a motorhome, I lose the opportunity to invest the money, as well as the potential earnings from that investment.

The annual opportunity cost of owning a motorhome is $75,000 * 6%, or $4,500.

The first Europeans to lay eyes upon this amazing spring were fur trappers, in 1839. They described it as a “boiling lake.”

My research indicates that a motorhome depreciates about 60% over a ten-year period, or an average of 6% per year. Thus, the depreciation cost adds another $4,500 per year to the expense of ownership.

Insurance will probably cost about $1,000 per year, and keeping it registered with the DMV will cost maybe $500 annually.

I understand that motorhomes need constant care. Even when they’re sitting around not being driven. So I’m going to throw in storage costs of $500 annually, even if my money-whirlpool sits on my own property.

No, this is not lava. Bacterial mats color the spring with greens, reds, and this striking orange.

That brings me to fixed annual costs of a staggering $11,000, for the privilege of owning a motorhome. Whether it’s driven anywhere or not.

To justify these high fixed costs, the motorhome would have to be driven 71.9 days per year, on road trips. That’s $11,000, divided by daily road trips savings of $153.

We aren’t musicians, traveling salespeople, or involved in any other peripatetic profession. So there’s no way we’d be needing to drive a motorhome that much. At most, my wife and I would probably drive one about 20 days per year.

And at 20 days per year, it would cost us an extra $7,840 per year to own a motor home, versus renting halfway decent motel rooms.

About 560 gallons of water per minute discharge from the Grand Prismatic Spring, along with more water from nearby Excelsior Geyser. The hot water flows in every direction away from the spring’s crater. This green runnel is cascading toward the nearby Firehole River.

And so, maybe I’m not such a chump after all. Motels win this battle of the budget. I’m sticking with my Outback, which I’ll keep using to handily pass these metallic slugs of the highway, as Kay and I travel America along a trail of roadside inns.

Sorry Rowan. You’re my brother, and I respect you. But you’ve gotta learn how to use a spreadsheet.

A boiling hot waterfall showers the Firehole River with runoff from the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser.

« Older Entries