Rhyolite, Death Valley

On the northeastern edge of Death Valley is an abandoned ore mining town called Rhyolite. The weathered old ruins, some still standing, are breathtakingly beautiful. Rhyolite was a thriving town at the beginning of the last century. It declined as soon as the ore was depleted. At its peak, the town hosted several thousand residents. Now it’s a ghost town with rusting cars and crumbling, abandoned buildings.

I like the structure of this crumbling building.

Rhyolite is a study in the sad beauty of decay. Decrepit buildings crumble and wilt against the stark desert background. Man-made structures weather like the nearby ashy bushes that struggle in the arid climate. The environment is harsh for urban and plant growth alike. It’s a perfect setting for photography. I went a little nuts taking photos.

I am glad the crumbling buildings haven’t been dismantled. Dusty and weathered, they are perfect accompaniments to the dry desert environment and are reminders of our fragile existence. Without a constant influx of resources and water, a town becomes a dry husk. These buildings are an elegant reminder of mortality. The ruins complement the harshness of the Death Valley environment perfectly.

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See some bison

Badlands National Park, South DakotaA bison is a two thousand pound behemoth that is impossible to miss if you visit the right park. That park is Badlands National Park, South Dakota. Heres the plan: Park your car. Stay in your car. Wait in the car with your camera. The bison will come to you. Don’t get out of your car. Take a picture. Carry on with your life.Here’s the whole sequence as it happened to me. A swarm in the distance looked like dots on the horizon.

It took me a while to register them as bison. The swarm came closer, and the individual animals appeared larger.

It was clear they were coming straight for me. I felt a certain sense of dread. I locked my car doors and took pictures. Bison moving inexorably closer to my location.

The bison were heading right towards me now! They were all around me! They were relentless! They came from all angles! What would I do? Well, keep the car door locked. I didn’t think bison would knock my car over. Where was this guy planning to go?

One of the bison stood right in front of me and watched me. Spooky! Is he winking at me? DID THAT BEHEMOTH WINK AT ME? I am not your type, bison guy. You need to find yourself a lady bison. Gross.

At long last! The beastly creatures sauntered past! I was safe! The swarm moved past my car. I live to tell the story!

This concludes the beast-swarm portion of my Badlands National Park adventure. Badlands is a beautiful park, and it is very easy to see wildlife. Also, in the summertime there werent many visitors.However I recommend visiting in July so as to avoid the cluster of traffic surrounding Sturgis. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is held in South Dakota in early August. Its lovely to meet so many bikers on the road and in the diners, but it does create havoc for traffic and renting motel rooms. I had to avoid South Dakota completely in order to find a room at a reasonable price or even any room at all. Many motels and hotels were booked completely near Badlands because of the motorcycle rally. Next time I will travel this part of the country in July or September.

Chief Mountain

Chief Mountain is located on the eastern border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Part of its striking beauty is that it rises sharply 5000 feet above the surrounding plains. The vertical shape reminded me of Devils Tower, famous from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The landscape in July is gorgeous and lush. Thick clouds lazily dusted the top of the mountain and dark green forest skirted the foreground. Rare Trumpeter swans swam by in the nearby grassy lake. It was incredibly peaceful. I took a tour with a guide from Blackfeet Outfitters who described Chief Mountains sacred nature. The tour guide helped us look for the swan.

Chief Mountain, on the eastern border of Glacier National Park

Chief Mountain, on the eastern border of Glacier National Park

There are many reasons why taking a guided tour is a great idea. The first reason is purely practical. My guide brought a bear gun. As much as I love travel, going on solo road trips meant that when I wanted to hike, I had to fear the grizzlies. I love traveling by myself. I can eat when I want, pee when I want, sleep when I want, and take photos when I want. I can eat my chicken fried steak in peace. I can have a second cup of coffee and mull over my photographs without holding anyone up. When I see a patch of wildflowers that I feel like photographing for a few hours, I am not putting anyone out. I dilly-dally to my hearts content. I can spend three days waiting for a moose to come out of hiding, while the bugs slowly peck at my legs. I can’t imagine insisting that anyone endure the bug pecking with me.

Patch of wildflowers that I spent forever photographing.

Patch of wildflowers

I like to spend my time taking photos of random bugs. The photo below shows a yellow moth in Yellowstone National Park that I spent a cozy two hours with. Who’s got the patience to wait two hours while I fiddle with my camera over a bug? The moth was patient but I doubt a human would have that stamina.

A yellow moth from Yellowstone, chilling on a pile of dirt.

I may be underestimating the patience of the average Joe, but when I go by myself, nobody has to wait. I don’t like to keep people waiting while I futz with how to take the best bumblebee photo. Im a world-famous futzer. My technique is to take hundreds of shots of the same bug, waiting for the right light to hit. I learned this photo technique from a professor in college. Take a bajillion photos and toss out all the crap. In the end you’ll have something halfway decent. In the age of digital cameras, this works exceptionally well.

The only problem with this model is bear encounters. I am not afraid of black or brown bears. Grizzly bears are another story. I don’t trust whistles or other noisemakers to keep away the grizzlies. Grizzly territory includes Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Park. Going on a guided tour solved my grizzly problem. I was more than happy to drop the pretense that I had a good defense if a giant grizzly came bearing down on me, pun intended. We didn’t mess around with a puny whistle. A guided tour is super handy for staying safe from bears. Also can you imagine how sad I would be trying to take photos while a group of people stood around tapping their feet? No, it would never work.

Secondly, a guided tour is handy because the guide had a story for everything. There were bear tracks, coyote tracks, scat of all kinds, and flowers of all kinds. He had stories for all of it. I love stories about nature. Bring on the bear poop stories! For instance, typical bear scats weigh a half-pound or more. Black bear droppings reveal their fondness for raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries. Coyote scat looks totally different. If you want to know if you’ll need to prepare for attacking bands of coyotes or bears, its good to know what they’re pooping.

Additionally, the guides have fun vehicles. At first I didn’t pay attention to why the wheels were so giant or high off the ground. I climbed in and buckled up. He took an immediate turn off the road. I thought he was going to find some dirty unpaved road. No. He just drove right off into the hillside. We sailed into the sunset, no road necessary. Then up came a creek. No, not a creek. A river! A giant roaring river with gigantic rocks! I am not exaggerating at all. This jeep didn’t stop. It drove right over moving water. Boom! We were in the river. Boom! We were out of the river. I couldn’t believe it.

If I hadn’t seen anything scenic at all, I would have done the tour just for the ride itself. The guide could probably make that drive backwards up a cliff in his sleep, but I found the trip exhilarating and action-packed. I endorse this trip for its high level of ridiculousness.

Finally, tour guides are great for taking you places you wouldn’t normally go. I left the crowded tourism of the Glacier Park for the serene seclusion of Blackfeet Reservation land. The landscape was magnificent and peaceful. I didn’t see anyone else while I was out on the tour. I love that kind of solitude.

The guide, right before some lightning struck.

While we were out on tour we encountered a brief but intense lightning storm. There are several wonderful things about lightning. Lightning makes light in the dark, which is an amazing thing to begin with. Lightning bolts are loud and crackly.

Here is the sky right before lightning struck. Ominous!

Sky right before lightning struck

Most importantly, when lightning hits during the day, rainbows usually follow. So not only did we have some cracklin’ good lightning, but we had a full-sky rainbow. The photo below shows the rainbow that followed the storm.

Double-rainbow after lightning struck.

This rainbow was both a double rainbow and full-sky, and lightning had just struck. I get a little verklempt when experiencing nature like this. I started thinking about the universe and my place in it. I’m pretty sure I exclaimed about that rainbow. Hella good! Wicked awesome!

See a moose

When you get a chance, you need to see a moose.

I was seriously impressed the first time I saw a live moose. They are huge creatures averaging 900 pounds, with spindly legs and big old pendulous dewlaps. The bulls antlers are spectacular, though unwieldy-looking. I don’t know how they balance such a structure on their heads, but moose seem to do all right.

Moose were on my list of animals I really wanted to see during my cross-country trip from San Francisco to Boston. I had seen many other large animals in and around the national parks: bison; big-horned sheep; elk; coyote; bear. By the end of my road trip moose were still elusive.

Moose are more skittish than some of the other large animals. Bison will have no problem scuttling right up to your car. Big-horned sheep will chew on grass right next to you as if you are a visiting cousin. Park regulations suggest that you back off, but in my experience the animal will make that your problem.

Moose on the other hand might not be so easy to spot. The easiest way to see moose is to head north to our friendly neighbor nation Canada, where the moose are bold and plentiful. However this book is about things to do in the U.S., so Ill share my advice for seeing good ol red-blooded American moose.

There are moose in the vicinity of Grand Teton National Park. However, the pressures of tourism on the park mean they more likely to spend time outside the park. I looked, so I can tell you, they are hard to find in the park.

I spent at least two hours looking for wild animals in this collection of bushes:

Collection of bushes looking for wild animals in Grand Teton

After just about giving up, I asked a naturalist at the park where to find the moose. She told me that the moose tended to gather at a spot southeast of the park, across from the river. They eventually come out to drink. I took this advice very seriously, and went to this spot to stake out the moose. I spent three long days waiting for the beasts to come out in the open.

When I got there a crowd had already gathered. L’enfer c’est les autres. I particularly recall one guy who was showing off his giant long lens. It was an impressive lens, definitely the right lens for taking wildlife photos. He wouldnt stop talking about his camera equipment. I dont know the guys real name, but for the purposes of this story his name is Golem. Everybody was impressed with Golems lens. Im sure it was very precious.

Fortunately I had patience on my side. Bugs also worked in my favor. The bugs came out at dusk, driving away the crowd. I went back to my motel at night and came back the next day. Fewer people milled about. Golem didnt last a day.

There was still no sight of the moose, but I persisted. By the third day everyone else was gone. However, there was still no sign of moose. It was getting dark. I was losing hope of getting a picture, but I just wanted to see some moose. Any moose at all would have made me happy.

And then they came! A bunch of moose! Including bulls! The grainy dark photo below is the best photo I could get, but you can see the outline of his antlers. I was ecstatic.

Bull moose outside of Grand Teton.

Bull moose outside of Grand Teton

If you want to get a good photo, bring a long or fast lens. Ignore the chatty people, because they will dissipate after a day or two. Be patient and keep a lookout. The moose will eventually come to the water. Bring bug spray. If you still don’t see a moose, leave the park. Also be sure to follow their seasons. The mating season happens in autumn and leads to more bulls out in the open.

 

The wily fox

this is a coyote, not a fox

My second national park on my epic San Francisco to Boston road trip was Glacier National Park. I started on the main road into the park. It was the main road. Full of cars. Nothing remote about it. I was still wearing flats, not boots. I pulled over into a small parking lot to put the boots on. A marked parking lot! Cars all over! Main road! People and stuff!

So there I was next to my car with no shoes on when this guy shows up. He was on the other side of the car at first. You’ll have to imagine that he’s LOOMING next to me (I only started photographing him from the safety of the car). I jumped into the car, shoes in one hand and boots in the other, climbed into the driver’s side, put on some form of shoes (I forget which), and took a bunch of photos. At the time I thought he was a fox because he looked like a small dog.

Later on I showed a native american nature guide my photos. Apparently he is a coyote. Hah hah, double-dumb on you, Kristen.

Never leave the house without your boots on!