Category Archives: Travel

The Lamar Valley

The Lamar Valley is where you’ll find most of the bison in Yellowstone. We encountered about a dozen herds, sometimes with hundreds of head.

Just north of Tower Fall we came to an intersection. If we turned right we’d head into the Lamar Valley, where we could end up driving two or three extra hours, sightseeing. Everyone in the car was all for it, notwithstanding their sore asses, so to the right I cranked the wheel.

Poachers reduced the Yellowstone bison numbers to about two dozen, by 1902. Then the U.S. Army stepped in and saved them from extinction. In August, 2018, their population was estimated at 4,527.

One of my blogging buddies, Jason Frels, recommended this drive. Jason has a photography blog, and if you want to learn some fine points of photography, or if you’re just into admiring beautiful photos, you’ll want to check out his blog. He maintains that he’s an amateur, but he could’ve fooled me. His pictures are professional looking, and he provides meticulous explanations for how he achieves them.

In winter, bison congregate in herds of about 20. But in summer they coalesce into an average of 200 per herd, with a maximum of 1,000.

But I’m just into admiring his beautiful photos, so I must admit that I haven’t learned much. I’m content with my hybrid, point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix B700.

Older females direct the herds, while the bulls just run around fighting each other over which cow they’re going to screw. The bulls weigh about 2,000 lbs, while the cows only weigh about 1,100 lbs. Both genders have humps and horns, but a cow’s horns tend to be slightly shorter than a bull’s.

In Yellowstone, I alternated between Auto Mode and Landscape Mode, with occasional forays into the Macro setting. But sometimes I’d forget which mode I was in, and then have a hell of a time focusing. And that should help you gauge my skill level at photography.

Most bison can be found in the Lamar Valley, but we spotted isolated bison all over Yellowstone. This giant was caught napping in the Washburn Range area, a little ways southwest of the Lamar Valley.

There was a time when I was more into the camera hobby. I knew that F-stop didn’t stand for, “Fuck! Stop and get a shot of that!” I had a comprehension of things like depth-of-field, aperture, and shutter speed. And I usually shot in Manual Mode. So sometimes when I’m reading Frel’s blog, I have a vague idea of what he’s talking about. But mostly, the fine points of shutterbugging have escaped my memory, and left me feeling grateful for Auto Mode.

Buffaloes can run up to 35 mph, and can jump over objects five feet high. So maintaining the required 25 yard distance from them gives you a sporting chance to escape a charge.

My Nikon has a fantastic 60X zoom, that will put you right on the horns of a buffalo, a mile away. And this came in very handy on our spin through the Lamar Valley, because this area is loaded with bison.

The rutting season is in July and August. And we indeed got stuck in a rut, waiting around hoping for these two lovers to put on a show. But she wasn’t having it.

All the park literature warns you to stay well clear of these shaggy beasts. At least 25 yards. But with my powerful zoom lens, I doubt I got any closer than 26. Actually, we unintentionally got much closer than that, because these big galoots have a funny habit of crossing the highway and causing huge traffic jams.

Why did the buffalo cross the road? To get to its photogenic side.

My wife took this photo with her cell phone, while I was driving. We were the warp in the woof of a traffic jam. These two bison are waiting for us and others to pass before taking their turn to weave their way across the road.

We witnessed massive herds, containing hundreds of bison, stippling the valley like the stubble on my wife’s unshaven legs. And these herds in Yellowstone are descendants of the original herds that have thrived here since prehistoric times. They have not been hybridized by interbreeding with cattle, like many other buffalo. Nope, these are the real McCoys.

The gestation period for buffaloes is about the same as for humans, about nine to nine-and-a-half months. In fact I’ve known a few humans who’ve given birth to buffaloes. At least that’s what I surmised when the proud parents showed me their “cute” baby pictures.

The bison are a sight to behold, but even without these animals, this would have been a sensational drive. The Lamar Valley is lush, with rolling green hills surrounded by higher mountains. And through the valley winds the Lamar River, a blue ribbon about 20 to 30 feet wide, banked by verdant tall grass, and smattered with riparian boscages.

Some Yellowstone bison are infected with brucellosis, which they can spread to livestock. During winter they often wander into Montana to graze on range land. Ranchers feel nervous about this, and sometimes kill these bison. This has resulted in much controversy and debate.

It was like a scene from history, going back to the days before our wide-open spaces filled up with people.

After humans, wolves and grizzly bears also prey on adult buffaloes. This tired old bag of bones seems like an easy target. Perhaps I should have warned him.

We drove all the way to Silver Gate, Montana, which is a small tourist trap a few miles past the park’s northeastern entrance. We returned the same way, to drink in this valley again. And though our asses were quite sore upon our return to our campsite, we were glad we did it. We considered this to be the most scenic of all our drives through Yellowstone.

So thank you, Jason Frels, for the suggestion.

A typical scene from the Lamar Valley.

Tippling

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces display their beauty about five miles south of the Montana border, in northwestern Yellowstone National Park. They’re one of the most popular features of Yellowstone, and are packed with my least favorite of all wild animals. The Tourist.

Alcoholism runs in my family. But I doubt we’re special. It probably runs in every family. My Dad, Orin Scully Gnu, was a wonderful, beautiful person to know. But he was also an alcoholic. I know this because he died of the DTs. And I believe you don’t die of the DTs unless you’re an alky.

Like father, like son. My brother, Rowan Waters Gnu, is also an alky. At least in my opinion. And so is his wife, Connie Tipples Gnu. In my opinion. And perhaps you’re thinking I am too, from of all these crazy family names I invented.

Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a complex of many hot springs, created over thousands of years.

But no, I quit drinking alcohol several decades ago, before any addiction could set in. I consider alcohol to be one of the deadliest poisons human beings commonly consume. It’s even worse than coffee. According to Psychology Today, alcohol kills nearly three times more people than all other drugs, combined (88,000 per year, compared to 30,000).

The largest known carbonate-depositing spring in the world is found at Mammoth. In fact, more than two tons of calcium carbonate flow into Mammoth each day. Which is probably enough to keep the whole world permanently free from heartburn.

I was a binge-drinker when I did drink. And I could get pie-eyed. There was that time a designated driver took me to a concert. I got so sozzled, that after the concert I insisted on finding my own car and driving home. I’d forgotten someone had driven me to the concert. And when I couldn’t find my car in the parking lot, I wanted to call the cops and report it stolen.

I shudder at what might have happened, had I not had a designated driver that day.

The calcium carbonate at these springs comes from limestone along a fault line that runs from within the Yellowstone caldera to Mammoth, which is outside the caldera.

But I’m a lightweight. A lot of drinkers handle booze better than I could. And some function better drunk than sober. Babe Ruth’s performance-enhancing drugs of choice were beer and Scotch whiskey. My Dad became superman after a six-pack. Alcohol is a miracle drug for my brother, too.

Travertine comes from geothermal vents, and there’s plenty of travertine at Mammoth. It accounts for the fibrous and concentric textures and patterns in the terraces, and the polychromatic appearance of white, tan, cream, and rust. Algae also accounts for some of the colors, especially the browns, oranges, reds, and greens.

Rowan and Connie have made a drinking rule for themselves. They don’t tipple until after 6:00 pm. But along about 4:00 or 5:00, you can hear them talking, salivating, and counting down for six. And as soon as that magic witching hour rolls around, pop go the beverage tops.

There’s a labyrinth of of stairways at these springs, that can seem endless, dragging your feet to higher and higher heights. My wife, Kay’s, coxalgia kicked in, and she quickly gave up and returned to the car. But not before gaining an eyeful of beauty that can be found at the bottommost level.

Rowan’s a beer man. He guzzles that shit down like water. Like he’s rowin’ in water. His preferred brand is Corona. But Connie tipples the hard stuff. She pours Diet Dr. Pepper into a tall tumbler, and tops it up with rum.

Up another level, and Connie stopped for a rest, with panting, sweating resignation. “D-don’t worry about me,” she heroically gasped,“I-I-I’ll be okay. I-I’ll catch up with you guys. Y-yes, yes, I-I’ll catch up. And if I can’t make it. I’ll find Kay. Back at the car.” So we continued on without her. And we never saw her again.

Rowan has a game called “Washers” that involves tossing large round, metal washers, into a box. It’s similar to horseshoes. We played that game at his campsite during the evenings, after finishing our Yellowstone sightseeing. And he kicked my ass most every game.

My grandnephew, Wiley Cody, Jr, was being a clever coyote. At 20-years-old, he could outwalk all of us old folks, and he got way ahead. He wasn’t about to let Rowan and me call him back so we could return to the soft, inviting comforts of my automobile, and drive back to our cozy campground.

You’d think with all his drinking, I could beat him. But no, in fact with each beer he only got better. And his sense of humor only got sharper and wittier. He’s just like my Dad. Dad’s game was pool. And you wouldn’t want to play pool against my father for money, after he’d put away a six-pack or two. But you wouldn’t mind hearing the laughter and humor. He was funny as hell. Just like my brother.

So we had to chase the fucker down. But the faster Rowan and I walked, the swifter he proceeded, disappearing higher and higher up staircases and hiding between hot springs terraces. Goddamned coyote.

The best way to beat my brother at a game of manual skill and dexterity, is to wait until he’s upset about something. The same strategy was effective against my Dad.

One thing that made it hard to catch up with Wiley, was that every 10 or 20 feet I was stopping to take a picture. How could I resist? There was new beauty found at every step. We were chasing a coyote through heaven.

One late afternoon around 5:45, Rowan was trying to resolve a computer issue over the phone with someone at his tax office. Nothing seemed to work, and he was feeling more and more frustrated. After he finished the call, he made the mistake of challenging me to a game of Washers.

I kicked his ass, 11-1.

We reached a top level and found a parking lot that was nearly empty. What the hell? The bottom levels were packed with cars, and we’d thought ourselves extremely lucky to pull into a spot right after somebody pulled out. But if we’d only gone around a corner and up a hill, we would have encountered a parking paradise, and been close to sensational sights like this.

Fortunately for him, the game finished at 6:00. A beer later, he narrowly edged me, 11-10. And by 7:00, I was on the wrong end of scores like 11-6, 11-3, etc, to a giggling sibling spouting one-liners a mile a minute.

That’s when I gave up and headed back to my cabin. I had to hit the hay, so I could get up at 4:00 and drag everyone else out of bed for another fun day at Yellowstone.

With wobbly legs, we finally cornered Wiley at a dead-end, in this remote location, far from my parked car. And in my view, this was the most beautiful hot spring of all of Mammoth. We spent a few minutes here, stunned by the visual, while keeping our cameras busy. I couldn’t be mad at Wiley. This spot made the chase all worthwhile. He truly was a cunning coyote, who’d won a place in my heart.

The Matriarch

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the first large canyon of the Yellowstone River. You might say it’s the matriarch.

We spent five days touring Yellowstone, and four were in my Outback. It’s a roomy vehicle, that was sufficient for us five adults, with me behind the wheel, my copilot wife, Kay, next to me, and my brother, Rowan, his wife, Connie, and my grandnephew Wiley, in the back seat.

Some claim the Yellowstone River gets its name from the Minnetaree tribe, who named it Mi tse a-da-zi (Yellow Rock River), after the yellow rock of this Grand Canyon it flows through.

Cell service is spotty in the park, but sufficient enough to hear the frequent sound of texts arriving at Connie’s phone. Connie is the matriarch of the family. She and Rowan have pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon. When a family member, whether child, grandchild, ex-in-law, sibling, nephew, or niece, has a problem, who do they call? Problem-Busters. Rowan and Connie.

But they don’t talk to Rowan. Connie holds the purse strings.

The Yellowstone River is about 692 miles long, and is the principal tributary of the upper Missouri River.

Their 29-year-old daughter, who lives with them rent-free, texted from a thousand miles away. She needed help with a flat tire. Connie texted back, suggesting she call Triple-A. Problem busted. It was nice to know that not all problem busting costs them money. Sometimes they just use a little brain power.

Their ex-daughter-in-law, whom they employ, and whom they help out with all kinds of problems, texted with a computer issue. Connie and Rowan conferred with each other, then texted the solution back. Problem busted. And again, with only brain power.

Their son, who lives rent-free down the street from Rowan and Connie, in a house Rowan and Connie owns, texted from a hospital about a medical emergency going on with a grandson. Brain power couldn’t help this time. But the problem was busted. They didn’t tell us how, but I wonder just how deep they had to reach into their Grand Canyon pockets.

Kay and I cast knowing looks at each other. We’ve seen this pattern before. In Kay’s parents.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 24 miles long, and 800 to 1200 feet deep. The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River can be seen in the distance, marking the beginning of this Grand Canyon.

Kay’s mother, Ravena, was also a matriarch. And everyone came to her with their problems. And with a hand stretched out. And Ravena was always there for them, with a lecture on how to straighten out their lives, and a big wad of cash for their palms.

They never took her advice, but they always took the cash.

The Lower Falls of Yellowstone River tumble 308 feet, and are nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls. It’s flow rate is far less than that of Niagara, but still it drains more water than any other fall of the U.S. Rocky Mountains.

And they resented her. Her words of wisdom were trenchant and came from a place of deep and obsessive rumination. She was blunt and never let up. She ranted at them at length, as they squirmed in their chair.

For example, she often ranted to her promiscuous granddaughter, “A stiff prick has no conscience. Take your legs out of the air. Try having more than one kid from the same father.” (As she handed her money to buy baby clothes.)

I pity the fool who tries to navigate these waters in a rubber raft.

They may have gotten a fine handout from Ravena, but at the cost of their dignity, from her verbal browbeatings. And so between them and the matriarch existed the same kind of natural enmity that exists between an employer and employee. A tension that grows no gratitude.

Yellowstone Falls consists of two great cataracts, known as the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. You’ve seen Lower Falls. These are the Upper Falls. The Lower Falls are about a quarter-mile downstream, at the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

When my in-laws aged to the point of enfeeblement, nobody showed up to help. Because nobody had grown any gratitude.

Except Kay and me. But we had not been leaching off them. We always bought our own cars, and we paid off our own house. And when life threw catastrophes at us, we wrote the checks to cover the crises. So we stayed out of the browbeating line, and retained our dignity.

And for that, we felt gratitude.

Native Americans described Yellowstone Falls to Lewis and Clark. They dutifully made note of it, but did not believe the natives.

That made it possible for us to appreciate and love her, and my father-in-law, Jake, like no other family member could. We saw something in them beyond a handout. We developed a great friendship with them.

We took over their care. And we accompanied them through their final journey through life, saving them from the humiliation of nursing home confinement.

It wasn’t easy. And we’re no saints. Sometimes we wished we could run away from this heavy responsibility that trammeled our freedom. But we stuck it out. To the end.

The year 1824 marked the first time a European saw Yellowstone Falls. He was a French trapper named Baptise Ducharme.

I only hope Rowan and Connie will have a similar family member to love and care for them in their enfeebled years. But so far, I’ve seen no sign of it. The matriarch and my brother are traveling a path paved with ingratitude and abandonment. But perhaps, if there truly is a Unicorn god, and they pray hard enough to it, somebody will step up to the plate.

The Yellowstone River can vary dramatically in flow rate over the seasons, from as low as 680 cubic feet per second in the autumn, to 8,400 cubic feet per second during the late springtime.

I pulled into a parking lot at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The cell phone in the back seat went silent. A relief. Rowan and the matriarch were safe for the moment.

There was no service.

The canyon walls grow higher and higher, as the Yellowstone River flows closer and closer to the Lower Falls, and the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

How to Visit Yellowstone

A deep-green hot spring at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. We got into Yellowstone late, the first day, because we drove up from Grand Teton and came through the South Entrance. But the line was very short, as this gate doesn’t get as much use as other gates. But by the time we reached the West Thumb Geyser Basin it was afternoon, very crowded, and we barely found parking. Parking is very competitive at the hot springs sites of Yellowstone.

Our national parks are becoming more and more popular as tourist destinations, and thus, more and more crowded. These crowds makes it challenging to visit the most popular of our parks, due to long lines at entrance gates, and full parking lots at the most beautiful and celebrated natural features of any park.

An aqua-green hot spring, with the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake in the background.

Yellowstone was our first national park, established in 1872. So by default, it was our most popular park for a long time. But now others have surpassed it. According to National Geographic, in 2018 Great Smoky Mountains National Park was our most popular by attendance. It received over 11 million visitors. Number 2 was the Grand Canyon, with 6 million. Number 3 was Rocky Mountain National Park, with 4.5 million. Number 4 was Zion National Park, with 4.3 million. And straggling in at number 5 was Yellowstone, with 4.1 million.

This runoff from a hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin empties into Yellowstone Lake. The orange colored substance is called a bacterial mat. It’s produced by extremophiles that live in the boiling hot water, with names such as Pyrolobus fumarii, and Pyrococcus furiosus. I don’t think they cause diseases in humans, but if they did, could you imagine the fever you’d run?

But that’s still a lot of visitors, with long lines at entrance gates, and many full parking lots. I know, because I was at Yellowstone last month, with four of my relatives. And I learned the best way to beat the crowds to see this magnificent paradise in all its splendor. If you want to learn my secrets, consider the following advice from your tour guide, Tippy Gnu:

These two hot springs are nestled on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. They convert the nearby waters into a naturally heated swimming pool.

First, get the hell out of bed! Get up as early as possible. Way before dawn. I emphasized the importance of this to my relatives, and was somewhat successful. But while I was rising at 4:00 am, these sleepy-heads slept in until 5:00 and 6:00. Just the same, I was able to gather their corpses and stuff them into my car, and hit the road by 7:00, every morning.

Great Fountain Geyser, in the Lower Geyser Basin, along Firehole Lake Drive. If you look closely at the top-middle background, you can see an eruption of nearby White Dome Geyser.

If it was just me, I would have been on the road at least an hour earlier. But these bumbling coffee addicts simply can’t function until they’ve slurped down their first cup of java.

A white mud hot spring at Artists Paint Pots, near the Norris Geyser Basin. There’s a pool near this spring that shoots globs of white mud through the air. These sometimes strike spectators, leaving them speckled and perhaps a little annoyed.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice. Don’t drink coffee. Quit that nasty habit months before you reach Yellowstone, and you’ll discover newfound abilities to wake up early, and start functioning just as soon as your feet touch the floor.

A bacterial mat from a hot spring at Biscuit Basin. Or perhaps it’s marmalade, that spilled from one of the biscuits.

My third and final piece of advice is, if you insist on drinking coffee, then wear Depends. These coffee addicts carried mugs around with them all day, drinking and slurping and guzzling the brown stuff like it was a magical elixir. This delayed our travels from one spot to another, with their constant need to use the restroom. But if they had only worn Depends, they could have pissed their pants all day, and we could have seen more of nature’s wonders while simultaneously accommodating nature’s calls.

Every day that we sortied into Yellowstone, my coffee drinking companions had to find a piss-pot at least half a dozen times each. And these were two males and two females. Gender and supposed weaker-sex bladders had nothing to do with it. Nor did age, as one of the pissers was my 20-year-old grandnephew, Wiley Cody, Jr. You know, the Starbuck’s barista. Coffee was the culprit, my friends. Coffee.

As for me, I don’t drink it. And the most I ever had to use a restroom was once.

The Sapphire Pool at Biscuit Basin looks cool and inviting. But every overheated tourist who’s plunged in has been boiled alive, disintegrated, and never seen again.

We left at 7:00 am every morning, from the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, and quickly reached the West Entrance gate to the park, just a few miles away. And we never had to wait in a line. That was dandy.

An emerald green river flows through the Norris Geyser Basin. It’s been known to stimulate the bladders of many a coffee drinker. In fact after we finished our tour of this basin, I was anxious to get on the road before all the parking spots were taken at our next stop. But no, I had to wait. Because all four of my traveling companions had to hit the potty. Sigh. Frickin’ coffee.

Then we motored along a pre-planned route, to visit various sites in the park that we had in mind. And because we left so early, we almost always found a parking spot. We discovered that from about 7:00 to 10:00 AM, a place to park could always be had. But after 10:00, it gets iffy. Especially around the most popular sites, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Hot Springs.

Cliff Geyser, on the right, and Iron Spring Creek as it runs through the Black Sand Basin.

Also, we saw more wildlife early in the morning, than at other times of the day. The osprey, elk, and deer don’t drink coffee. So they’re able to be out and about during the wee hours, and without having to go wee-wee all the time.

New hot springs have a way of popping up in the middle of stands of trees, in Yellowstone, such as what occurred in this copse at Black Sand Basin. The mineral-rich water is nearly as poisonous as coffee. It’s sucked up by the trees and kills them. Meanwhile, silica in the water stains the bottom of their trunks white.

Let me illustrate the dangers of coffee, with a true story. We pulled into Biscuit Basin on a late-Sunday morning. We were in luck. We’d gotten there just in time, before the parking lot filled completely up. It’s a very popular hot springs site, and this was the first time we were able to find parking there, after several attempts.

And then my sister-in-law, Connie, announced, “I have to pee. Real bad. It can’t wait!” No surprise. She’d been drinking coffee all morning. We looked all around for the usual pit toilets that the park service plants at these sites. But there were no facilities.

We all gulped. I muttered to myself, “Ah shit. Fuckin’ coffee.” But my kind sister-in-law saved the day. She knew how disappointed we’d feel if we had to drive off to find an outhouse, then return to find no parking.

She reassured, with resignation in her voice, “That’s okay. I think I can hold it.”

Wonderful, I delighted, as I yanked the keys out of the ignition and sprang out of the car.

But my brother, Rowan, knew his wife better. “I’ll take you over to those woods,” he offered, “where you can find a private place to go.”

So the rest of us enjoyed the marvelous sights of Biscuit Basin, while Rowan and Connie attended to a different feature of nature. A little while later they returned, and quickly drank in the hot springs before we left. But before we could climb back into my car, Connie turned toward me with a glint in her eye.

“Hey Tippy,” she growled, “Wanna see something? I hurt my leg while trying to find a place to go.” Then she rolled up her pant leg. Up, up, up, it rolled, until finally it was near the pantyline. I felt uneasy gazing upon this much of her inner thigh.

Her exposed flesh revealed a long gash, incurred while trying to climb over a log that had a sharp, protruding branch. It looked nasty. In more ways than one. I shuddered. And I also felt the guilt-pang that Connie, the fucking coffee drinker, intended me to feel.

She healed up okay, but geez, if a nearby bear had smelled that blood, it would have been curtains for her.

So you see, coffee not only inconveniences yourself and others, it can be downright dangerous.

Therefore, to save your ass from bears, I’m going to recapitulate on the advice I gave earlier in this post. Here is the best way to visit Yellowstone:

  1. Get the hell out of bed. Early.
  2. Quit the coffee habit. Way before your visit.
  3. If you can’t quit, wear Depends.
  4. And I’ll add a fourth piece of advice. Never climb over a log with sharp branches sticking out of it. No matter how badly your coffee makes you want to go.

This is your bladder on coffee.

Big Tits

Grand Tetons is French for Big Tits,” I deadpanned to my passengers, as we approached the rugged mountain range.

It’s true. Well, mostly true. These mountains were originally named Les Trois Tetons (The Three Teats), by French-speaking trappers. The tallest of these teats is called Grand Teton, at 13,775 feet. So technically, there are no Grand Tetons (in the plural). There is just one Grand Teton, along with two smaller teats.

Grand Teton, the Big Tit, is at the left. The other two may or may not be in this frame. I can’t tell. They all look like tits, to me. In fact, I think there are many more than just three tits in this range. It’s fully of pointy and roundy projections, good for stimulating a horny trapper’s dreams.

But it sounded funny, and I thought I’d get a good laugh. Nothing. Silence. It fell flat. Flatter than my ironing-board-chested sister.

And that’s when I remembered. I have religious people in the car. My brother, Rowan, and his wife, Connie, don’t care much for such language.

The Tetons from the shore of Jackson Lake. Jackson Lake is a natural lake that was expanded in 1911, with the construction of the Jackson Lake Dam. The waters of the Snake River slither into and out of this body of water, and make it one of the largest high altitude lakes in the United States, at 6,772 feet elevation.

They haven’t been to church for years. They stopped attending after a scandal that they’ve only alluded to with sketchy, hushed details. But they claim that they’re still very religious, and believe in all that mumbo-jumbo that forms the doctrine of their faith.

Jackson Hole is a fairly wide and flat valley, adorned by the Tetons, to the west.

The word fuck is especially taboo with them. I tried to avoid it, but there was that time I was sitting at the picnic table, and Connie served me a hamburger that looked raw inside. When she saw my deer-in-the-headlights eyeballs, she offered to cook it a little longer.

So she extended a thin fork, for the purpose of hoisting that wide, unwieldy patty from my bun, back to the grill. A poor choice in tools, as a spatula is best for such a bulky operation. Less than one second later it plopped over, falling from the fork and hitting splat on top of the dirty picnic table surface.

The Tetons under a waning gibbous moon.

I’m a germaphobe, and this was all I could take. I uttered, “Fuck this procedure!” Everyone fell silent. The F-bomb, yes the fucking F-bomb, had just been dropped. Horrors. But I say, if you drop my fucking hamburger, I’m gonna drop the fucking F-bomb. I don’t care how religious you are.

At the left is magnificent Mt. Moran, of the Tetons, hovering above Jenny Lake. Jenny Lake is a very popular attraction at Grand Teton National Park. We arrived there somewhat early, about 9:00 am, and could barely find a parking spot. Damned tourists.

Apparently, I was forgiven in a Christian way, as Connie demurely picked up the patty and returned it to the grill. And I hope like fuck all the germs were destroyed by the heat, because I ended up eating the damned, dirty thing.

My brother, Rowan, and grand-nephew, Wiley Jr., decided to hike my legs off at Jenny Lake. So we took a stroll around the lake to a far-off, distant, godforsaken spot called Hidden Falls. You can’t see it from this perspective, but it’s over there. Somewhere. Hidden, as usual.

Like Lenny Bruce, I believe there are no dirty words, only dirty hamburger patties. And all such patties should be condemned to the hell of a barbecue grill, for heat-sterilization, if not thrown out entirely.

We started our hike at a bridge spanning Cottonwood Creek, when all of a sudden a park ranger appeared and told us to hold up. He warned there was a bear in the area. Then this hairy monster emerged, with her cubs.

The trappers were a foul-mouthed lot who appreciated so-called “dirty” humor. First, they named these mountains the Three Tits. That’s the best kind of woman to dance with. You get two in the front for rubbing against, and one in the back for playing with.

Momma bear playing with one of her baby bears, in the middle of Cottonwood Creek, while her other cub catches up.

Then they named the valley below the Three Tits, Jackson Hole, after a trapper named Davy Jackson, who was the first European-American to spend the entire winter there. Ostensibly, the term Hole comes from the steep descent into this valley from the Tetons, or opposite-side Gros Ventre mountains. It gave trappers the idea that they were descending into a kind of depression you might dig with a large shovel.

But I wonder if it was just that Davy was a real asshole.

The Gros Ventre mountains form the eastern boundary of Jackson Hole. Gros Ventre is French for “Big Belly”. So, at Jackson Hole you have big tits and a big belly. Somehow it all seems to go together.

The Snake River passes through Jackson Hole, which gives rise to more ribald double-entendres. Those trappers had quite the sense of humor, I tell ya.

Once the bear danger passed, we proceeded on our footslog to Hidden Falls, while enjoying spectacular views of Jenny Lake, such as this.

I was a trapper, too. I was driving, and had my religious brother and sister-in-law trapped in the back seat. I could have told more dirty jokes, but my wife, Kay, was sitting next to me, and I sensed a dirty look from her direction.

On the other side of the lake, between the trees, we could ogle the Tetons from closer range. So I guess that’s what all the motorboating was about, that I could see on the lake.

So I held my tongue and stared straight ahead, leering at the gorgeous beauty approaching. The pointy, perky, stony peaks, we commonly call The Grand Tetons.

Or, if you’ll forgive me for milking this joke further: The Big Tits.

Hidden Falls, sweating away in the cleavage of the Tetons.

China Without a Passport

Want to know how to visit China without a passport? Just do like my wife and me, and head to Grant Avenue, near downtown San Francisco. That’s the heart of Chinatown.

Our Muni bus regurgitated us into a crowd of Asians, like we’d been shanghaied, and sped away on it’s electric cable, leaving us disoriented in the Orient.

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building towers above nearby Chinatown. At 853 feet, it was the tallest building in San Francisco from 1972 until 2018, when it was surpassed by the 1,070 foot Salesforce Tower.

Chinatown is aptly yclept. It’s abustle with throngs of Chinese immigrants, peppered with a few befuddled, agog, and somewhat frightened tourists. It occupies 24 square blocks of steep boulevards, mysterious alleyways, and hieroglyphic Hanzi characters on storefront signage.

Notice the alley beside this Buddha shop? Chinatown is famous, or perhaps notorious, for its alleys. Here, hidden from street view have been brothels, gambling halls, and other disreputable or low-profile establishments. And a Chinatown alley hosted the secret office of exiled Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, where he raised money to support the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

Most of the denizens of Chinatown are immigrants from Hong Kong or mainland China. They speak little or no English. And they eye foreigners like my wife and me with wariness and animosity. Or so we imagined.

A typical Chinatown street.

If you visit Chinatown, I suggest you learn Cantonese first, or bring along a translator. Mandarin was once the dominant language. But that started to change in the 1960’s, when Cantonese-speaking immigrants began arriving in earnest. But hell, it all sounds Greek to me.

We wandered the streets like lost foreign tourists, eyeing the exotic goods offered at storefronts with a mix of wonder and morbid curiosity. The sidewalks were difficult to navigate, due to the ruck of Asian pedestrians on this Wednesday afternoon. I understand that weekends are even worse.

Red seems to be the favorite color of the Chinese. Red represents good luck, in Chinese culture, and is also thought to scare away evil spirits.

Chinatown is the most densely populated community west of Manhattan, with 54,000 people per square mile (Manhattan has 70,000 per square mile). Many of the immigrants here were professionals of respectable status in China, but have had to settle for low-paying livelihoods in restaurants and garment factories, upon arriving in Chinatown. As a result, they live in impoverished and overcrowded conditions.

I wonder if these red cat souvenirs are meant to scare away evil mice?

I put my wallet in my front pocket, and kept my hand close by. My wife clutched her purse. We chuffed and staggered up and down steep streets, trying to figure out what to do in this byzantine warren of legs, traffic, and loud city noises.

My wife caught my attention and cupped her hand to my ear. “I’m scared!” her voice quivered. “Get me out of here.”

That’s all it took to bring out my knight in shining armor. “Of course, my fair lass, I shall lead you to safety! Just follow me!

“But first, I’m hungry. I want to try some Chinese food.”

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None of the eating establishments looked very palatable for western stomachs, until we passed by a rather large-looking restaurant buried in one of the many, ubiquitous old brick buildings. My wife’s face brightened and appeared relieved. “Hey!” she shouted above the din of traffic, “this place looks big and clean, like they cater to Americans!”

We stepped inside. It was a grand, brightly-lit, high-ceilinged eatery, decorated in traditional Chinese ornamentation. A clean-dressed waitress walked by, pushing a stainless steel cart, and smiled at us. She gestured for us to come in further. Hers was the first friendly face we had encountered in this suspicious community, and it helped us regain our confidence.

We were seated at a large table by a waitress who spoke a bowl of Cantonese with one or two garnishments of English. We had captured one of the last available tables. This large eatery was packed with jabbering diners of eastern dialect. We were the only westerners in the building.

Suddenly a train pulled up beside our table. It was two waitresses pushing and pulling a large stainless steel food incubator. They opened up covers, displaying various Chinese dishes. “You want? You want?” They inquired as they pulled out steaming dishes and proffered them under our noses.

We were flummoxed. We’d never encountered this type of food service before. We were accustomed to menus, indited with English descriptions, and with numerical price tags. You know, where you choose from the menu, and someone writes down your order, as you calculate in your head how much this is going to lighten your wallet. We waved off the waitresses, hoping for a menu option.

They gave us annoyed looks and pulled away. But within seconds a new train pulled up, with new waitresses, and new offerings of exotic meals.

At this point we realized there would be no menus. So we carefully examined each dish. Finally we chose some spicy barbecue pork, and wontons that turned out to be stuffed with ground shrimp.

“Drink?” a new waitress walked up and inquired.

I wasn’t sure how much all of this was going to cost, so I decided to just order water.

“No free wata!” the waitress scolded. And she left in a huff.

Fortunately, complimentary tea was served, and although tea is poison I went ahead and slaked my thirst with the hot leaf juice anyway. And come to think of it, I’ve heard you should never drink the water in China, so perhaps tea was a safe choice for the circumstance.

I could take or leave the wontons, but the pork was heavenly, and I slurped and smacked down as many helpings as my clumsy chopsticks could handle.

As we ate, more food trains pulled up, with multiple offerings of delectables. The waitresses were pushy, and I began to wonder how much they expected us to eat here. Finally I shouted in my best Spanish, “No mas! No mas!” Spanish is the foreign language I’m most familiar with, so this was the best I could do for communication. But I think my angry look got the message across, and the food trains ceased.

I quaked in my hiking boots as we approached the cashier. The check was written in Hanzi characters, so we had no idea what this would cost. Were they going to try to soak us for $100? $500? $1,000? Would we be thrown into a Chinese prison if we refused to pay an exorbitant tab, and then have to contact the American Consulate?

It came to about $23. We threw in a $4 tip and then got the hell out of there.

We finally found a Muni and got on board. Within minutes the bus transported us back to America and dropped us off near our hotel.

We were back home safe, in our motherland. And we did not have to pass through Customs, or show anyone our passports. Which kind of surprised us. The contrast between Chinatown and the rest of San Francisco is very stark.

And as for China itself, we have both concluded that it’s a country we never have to visit. Because we’ve already been there.

We’ve been to Chinatown.

Leaving on a Road Trip

The Winchester House in San Jose, California, was one of our first stops. This 161 room mansion was the home of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester gun fortune. With all those rooms, she could have expanded to a hotel chain.

It’s 4:00 am, and we’re up and moving, looking forward to our next road trip and a cure for cabin fever. I pull the car up close to the front door and start loading luggage.

If a man knows what’s best for him, he will put the woman’s luggage in the car first, before he tries to find room for his own.

The Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco behind it.

My wife belts out an order: “Take the black bag!”

She means the multi-colored bag with the black handle. I don’t know this, so I stand in front of it looking stupid, trying to find the black bag. “Oh, I’ll get it myself!” she huffs impatiently, and snatches the bag and puts it by the front door for me to carry the rest of the way.

Five of the 21 California missions are in the San Francisco bay area. We pilgrimed to all five. Poppies bloom beside the northernmost mission, in Sonoma.

Our pack of dogs follows her every movement, as she frantically darts about the house looking for this and that to take on the trip. She screeches, “Move you fucking dummies or I will kill you!” She doesn’t mean a word of it, and the dogs know that. They continue to mosey and mill about her feet.

Sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, in San Francisco. Their playful ways reminded us of our dogs at home.

The dogs are aware that something is up. They’ve watched our madcap routine before. They know we’re abandoning them. They’re casting forlorn looks at us. We avoid their eye contact.

A meat market in Chinatown, San Francisco. For some reason, this too reminded us of our dogs at home.

I was hoping we could leave by 4:45. But no, she hasn’t poured her coffee yet. Coffee. That poisonous impedimenta that slows us down like leg irons, everywhere we go.

Time to leave the motel? No, wait, not until she walks to the lobby, pours one last cup of joe, and admixes the precise blend of cream and sugar to make it just right. Time to leave the restaurant? Nope. Not until she gets a cup of coffee to go, again carefully mixing in the perfect blend of condiments. Time to get out of the car and walk to the tourist attraction? Uh-uh. Not until she grabs her styrofoam tumbler of java, locates the ice chest, and creates a cup of iced coffee.

Lombard Street, in San Francisco. This is putatively the crookedest street in the world. So I guess a lot of politicians live here.

Ice. Coffee. And tea, also. Banes of my existence. I don’t use ice in my drinks, and I don’t drink coffee or tea. But she does. And it throws quicksand in our path to vacationland.

The north fork of the American River, near Auburn, California. Gold was first discovered on the south fork, sparking the 49er gold rush. It would have been discovered on the north fork first, but the prospector there had to brew a cup of coffee, and missed his chance.

At 4:55 am we finally drive off, feeling electric with excitement. Her electricity supercharges her mouth, and she starts yacking and yacking and yacking, while my ears sink lower and lower and lower, until they drop off my skull. But that’s okay, after just 300 miles of this she finally tires and nods off.

We ventured over the Sierras between snowstorms, and caught this wintry view of Lake Tahoe.

We see many sights on this trip, some of which I’ll be blogging about. And we make just as many memories. We laugh, we grouse, and we’re awestruck by all the new, unique things we encounter.

Mono Lake, and the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Los Angeles has a 350 mile-long straw, which it uses to suck up the snowmelt that would normally flow into this lake. It’s caused ecological catastrophe, and has been a source of controversy since 1941.

Finally, after a long, circuitous route through northern and southern California, and a few bits and pieces of Nevada, we drive home. We’re looking forward to familiar territory, our cabin fever cured. The dogs yap at the door, and paw us with happy feet as we step over the threshold.

13,754 foot Mt. Morgan, in the Sierra Nevada, overlooking Bishop, California.

This was how my last vacation went, and basically how they all go. It isn’t easy traveling with someone whose habits are different from mine. But I adjust to her, and she adjusts to me. And this makes it a whole lot better than traveling alone.

Because it wouldn’t be a vacation without her.

We spiced things up a bit, by going from 40 degree temperatures one day, to the 80’s the next, with this side trip through Death Valley.

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