Photo taken in the Yellowstone area.

Image via Wikipedia

Just saying. If you venture into Yellowstone National Park, be prepared to yield often and everywhere to the bison and those who worship them. Just like cows and monkeys roam with impunity in India, leaving jammed traffic and havoc in their wake, so go the Yellowstone bison.

Aided and abetted by park rangers, bison bring traffic to regular snarled standstills. The not quite 15 minute drive from the park’s west entrance to the turn off to Old Faithful took us nearly two hours thanks to a bison taking up a militant position on the only road. The situation was made more frustrating by the rubbernecking city folk who either stopped mid-road for extended photo-ops or  were too terrified to just drive around the beast.

Granted, living minutes literally from a national park stocked full of bison, I am a bit underwhelmed by the site of them now, but the thrill of Yellowstone was definitely dampened by the tourists acting like … tourists. I lost count of the number of times we were held up by the bison paparazzi, but I am sure the park ranger stuck with bison road patrol didn’t.  Same guy at nearly every pile-up.  At our first encounter, Rob rolled down the window to query about the cause of the hold up and the ranger was too deeply resigned to even roll his eyes when he said,


But his body language clearly radiated a deep shuddering heavy sigh.  By the end of the day, we felt his pain.

We spent just a day circumnavigating Yellowstone. In some ways it is majestic but in others, it’s just protected area in the mountains. Call me spoiled.  Go ahead, really, because I am, but I have seen mountains and valleys.  I have seen bison and bear (and know better than to pull over and get out of the vehicle).  Rivers and peaks are part of my holiday experience much of the time.

What clearly stuck out were the bubbling pools of sulfuric water that steamed and fouled the air like the hallway outside a high school chemistry class on a late spring day.

Old Faithful was the last stop of our day. Rob reasoned, correctly, that most of the masses headed there first thing, so we circled the loop from the opposite direction, taking in the mountain views and waterfalls first. The traffic was lighter and less inclined to stop and take pictures.* That leg of the day was notable for a couple of things: the insanity at the food/camp & gift store areas** at lunch – the bus tour people were probably the worst but the young family that allowed their toddler and preschooler to chase after ground squirrels with hotdog bits made me feel so much better about my own parenting decisions when Dee was that age that I am sorry now I wondered aloud if the kids would need shots when they got bit (seriously, the signs about not feeding anything even if it looks hungry and cute are ignored at your own peril).

The other event involved an RV with Pennsylvania plates and a Steelers logo on the back that veered from center line to nearly non-existent shoulder with such speed that I kept the camera trained on them for several miles just in case they toppled over. It would have made excellent viral YouTube.

Rob’s visited Old Faithful before and noted the commercial build-up right away. It’s a tourist mecca. A boardwalk with benches semi-rings this steaming hole and as the witching hour approaches, they fill up quickly. And disperse just as fast. The geyser erupts about every hour and 15 minutes for a grand total of 4 minutes and 20ish seconds. It begins with a couple of sputters before climbing slowly, maintaining its “erection” for a half-minute and then subsiding in nearly the same manner as it ascended. By the time it reverted back to its smoldering state, nearly everyone was gone. It was kind of sad, and I wondered what it had been like back in the day. You know,  of yore, when being a tourist entailed some effort and discomfort.

My advice for Yellowstone is get there early or late. If you can get into the park by 7 or 8 in the morning, the traffic is lighter and the flip-flop crowd is still back at the KOA. Go around dinnertime and you will encounter the skeeter bitten paparazzi as they are heading back to the hotels and campgrounds, sunburned, stuffed with junk food and laden with cheap Chinese knickknacks.  Either way, you win.  If you travel with the pack, be prepared to stop often and ford the hordes at every destination.

*We ran across a huge group lining the road up and down and peering anxiously into a valley that appeared to be empty.

**There were two age groups of employees at these venues. So young that their relatively slow mental processes strained one’s patience and so freakishly old that I become concerned anew about the state of Social Security.

Our second hike was through the Garden of the Gods. The mainstay of the park is a lame stone paved trail that takes one past the largest of the rock formations, a bluff area over looking a valley. Once part of a vast sea that millions of years ago covered the state, today it plays host to tourists who clamber over the rocks that despite not being as dangerously high up as say the Grand Canyon would very likely be the death or at the very least severe disablement as a result of any misstep.


The Guide claimed that the hike (and I hesitate to call anything that is paved and manicured a “hike”) would take about 40 minutes. Even with photo ops, we trekked it in half the time. It was easy to see what a clusterfuck (god, I love this word) a well-laid out place such as this would be once the summer and families on holiday began to arrive though Rob is incredulous that anyone could possibly visit this area on purpose (if we could have endured a longer car trip, we’d have been farther south ourselves). As it was only the end of March and just in the upper 50’s to lower 60’s, there were few people aside from us visiting.


The Flip-flop family were the people we encountered on the first real view from the bluff. Clad in shorts and flip-flops, they had hopped and huffed themselves out as far as one could go without actually falling off. The youngest, a girl of about seven, had leapt a space just a tad shy of her own height out to a stony flat and was trying to coerce her father into following. If that were my daughter so inappropriately dressed for hiking/rock climbing, dancing around on a 7 by 5 foot surface above a sheer drop of a hundred feet give or take – I would expect someone to turn me in for bad parenting. The father gamely attempted to make the leap but one look down the crevice in between his perch and the girl’s stopped him fairly cold. He tried to grab a thin tree that even I could see would crack like an egg and thought better of that too. The mother was sitting a bit farther out with the two older children still farther out behind her. I wondered if she had scooted all the way out on her butt because it didn’t seem to me that she could have stood all the way upright if one of her children’s lives depended on it. Still, she was the one who insisted that they all gather on this far point for a picture they could use on their Christmas card. Gotta love those people who can plan their obnoxious holiday missives 9 months in advance. “Look here we are on the bluff at Garden of the Gods in Illinois. This shot was taken just before my late husband fell feet first into a crevice and dropped 75 feet to his innard splattering and excruciatingly painful death right in front of our children and myself. Merry Fucking Christmas to you.”


Rob, sure-footed as a goat, hip-hopped out to the edge. The mother commented to me on his agility and kept the comments on his legs and bum to herself, but I saw her looking. Rob does have a very fine set of legs and a magnificent ass. He was just saying to me the other day that I don’t express my awe of him enough and so I thought I would throw some his way.


We wandered away from the Flip-flop Family as quickly as we could, but soon encountered the Outsiders. Teens whose dress – MySpace Goth – indicated that they thought themselves rebels. The black on black look topped by the hack job hairstyles, Cleopatra eyes and possibly accessorized further with piercing is so cliché to me. Having taught in middle and high schools for twenty years I can barely remember a year that I didn’t see kids dressed like this. Sometimes a handful. More and more as the time passed. But it is a tried and true sign of rebellion – nose thumbing – that like the youth music of the moment can hardly be called original anymore. I wonder when, like blue jeans, Goth like dress will become something that adults wear routinely, enduring the groans and eye rolls of their own children. I was listening to an NPR interview with Tracey Ullman where she explains why she doesn’t wear jeans. As a 48 year old divorced mom, her son considered jeans on a woman her age to be “sexy mom jeans”, the kind that women past forty and single wear to catch a new husband. Will the Goth young someday be accused of wearing “edgy mom chains” or “black widow clothes” by their teenage children who are afraid that they are in the market?


I had seen the two girls before we began our “hike”. One was a faux Goth. She had the lope-sided Veronica Lake look, dyed a dark pink – magenta maybe – and was dressed all in black but she clearly looked like a poser. Just doing the minimum defacement to be allowed to hang around. The other girl was as close to the real deal as a kid can get in southern Illinois. Jet-black hair that was clearly a dye job and hacked/shellacked into a variety of stark angles. I wasn’t even sure she was a girl at first because she wasn’t wearing the skintight pants of her companion but boys black jeans with stomping boots and a black jacket over a t-shirt with something on it I didn’t bother to read. It would have been obscure or insulting or both and I don’t read kid’s shirts anyway. I never have. Once in my early teaching days at a middle school on the eastside of Des Moines after I had escorted a class to the auditorium for a school performance of some kind, one of my co-workers sidled up to me and asked me if I had read the writing on the shirt of one of the boys in my class. While I had noted the scrawl that covered his shirt, I hadn’t paid it too much attention. Turned out it was the word “fuck” in cursive over and over. I don’t read kid’s shirts. Nor do I look into their mouths. There are just things I don’t feel I need to know.


When Rob and I ran into the Goth girls, they were accompanied by a boy who was holding the leash of a yippy looking little black (what else?) dog. I had spotted them on the far bluff that we were heading toward earlier and we had slowed down our pace a bit as the Flip-flops were far behind and we didn’t want to be stuck occupying space. Wearing the obligatory hoodie and fringed shaded eyes, he was darkly dressed as well. I didn’t get the sense he was “with”either girl though Pink was clearly enamored of him. The slunk past trailing the noxious odor of cigarettes that became thicker as we approached the rocks they had just vacated. I had forgotten how smoke hangs in the humid air but not how much I loathe teen smokers. Especially when smoking is part of an “outfit”.


After we’d moved off the tidy stone trail to a real hiking one, we ended up following a couple who Rob had initially suspected of being a pair of young lovers in search of an open-air shagging spot, but when we caught up to them they were just a couple of middle-aged tourists (Tracey Ullman’s son is right – it’s the jeans – coupled with ball caps and dyed hair anyone can fool Mother Nature now, provided she’s only got a rear view and from a distance). They attempted small talk but we shut them down, not being in need of hiking buddies and also because we are both a bit reclusive – not just a honeymoon thing either.


The hike itself turned into another off road experience. Flooding has drowned evidence of worn trails and enough people have simply created new paths hither and yon that it is pretty easy to end up running out of trail in a dead end. Like the first hike, we simply bushwhacked but by this time were in the valley between the bluffs and a coming rain and the setting sun made it seem darker than it was. At one point we were skirting close to the bluff and the distinct rustling of, in my opinion, a lot of bats, sent me scampering at almost a run to catch up to Rob who is always leading the way at Storm trooper pace. Later as we approached the truck in the parking lot, Rob spied a bat circling in the dimming light.


“Is that a bat?”


“Yes, there was a whole bunch of them back in the bluffs.”


When he wanted to know why I didn’t point them out, I replied.


“Because you’d have wanted to go back and take a look.”


And he would have too. And I hate bats.


The parking lot was deserted when we emerged from the trail after bushwhacking through the rain. I wasn’t too surprised. We hadn’t run across anyone that day who wouldn’t have melted.




Our first hike of the honeymoon was to be a loop in Shawnee National Forest that would take us through the Little Grand Canyon. Not, according to my husband, very aptly named. He was right. Grand Canyon mini-miniature might have been more accurate, but to be fair, once we made it down from the Big Muddy bluffs and climbed down into the crevices, it was pretty impressive. Rock formations created by water usually do invoke a bit of awe. This particular place reminded one more of Devil’s Den in Arkansas than the real Grand Canyon however.


The loop took 3 to 4.5 hours to complete according to the information at the start of the trail, and it warned of places where climbing would be necessary and that the trail sometimes disappeared and in those circumstances one should stay alert for the trail markers. From up top, we could see the toll that the recent flooding had taken on the area. Drowned landscape was apparent because of the trees that popped up like shipwreck survivors, waving branches frantically for help.


The top bluff took about 40 minutes including the photo opp and we figured that the trail wouldn’t take us as long as the average middle-aged couple as we were in better shape and hadn’t any tiny people to carry or whine at us to turn back. As we descended the trail become slightly more challenging and then we lost the trail and after a heavy breathing jaunt up a hill that angled up like an extension ladder, we found ourselves back on the first part of the trail. Convinced he could get us back on the proper path, Rob led us back down into the crevice and within ten minutes we were happily, and carefully, descending. We lost the trail in flood waters. It simply disappeared beneath the muddy water. In the distance Rob spied a trail marker on a tree trapped in the deluge and decided we could scoot around and pick it up at a site farther down the way.


First we had lunch. We might have had a bit of nookie too but the ground was still flood soggy and we didn’t have a blanket. Nakedness and gnats might be okay for lust-addled teens with a six-pack, but we had an hour or more of hiking – either pushing on or turning back – and it was a somewhat unappealing prospect to do this wet and gnat covered.


We pushed on after our break only to quickly discover that most of the trail was lost in really deep water with just the tippy tops of trees visible. Faced with turning back and climbing the slippery rock we’d clambered down originally, Rob convinced me to climb up the opposite bluff. It was steeper than the ladder hill and muddy and slipping off would have been more than just painful. Bone-breaking at least and the worst I didn’t want to think about, but off we went. Rob is a like a mountain goat. Sure-footed. Perfectly balanced. If I hadn’t been clinging to the muddy ground for dear life, I would have marveled at what a physical specimen he is. Hockey has left its legacy in his legs and bum for sure.


Although it felt like forever, we reached the top in about 15 minutes. Rob reminded me as we stopped to catch my breath that this was an exhilarating experience and I would be thrilled when I reached the top because I would have done something I hadn’t before. And then he added, and maybe we could have sex up there. Yeah. We didn’t by the way. Have el fresco amour.

Once at the top, Rob – in full hunter/gatherer mode – ascertained that we would have to hike the bluff top until we merged with the original trail. I didn’t doubt that we would. Rob never gets lost and he is my Sasquatch. He has no fear in the outdoors and I know from the tales he has told that he knows exactly what to do in the woods in every situation. Two hundred years ago he would have been a mountain man. A trail blazer. Trapping, living in the wild and amassing knowledge of the wilderness that would save his life and that of others.


We ended up covering the trail in four hours including breaks. Not bad for a couple of 40 somethings.