Category: Travel

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.

"Depths of Poison" Book 2

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