Category: Travel

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.

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.

"Depths of Poison" Book 2

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