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12 days of buffalo

After spending 12 days in Yellowstone National Park earlier this month and reading what explorers, park superintendents and authors throughout history have had to say in roadside signs and interpretive exhibits, I’m fresh out of superlatives for the place.

If you’ve never visited Yellowstone, you simply must put it on your bucket list. There’s no place like it on earth.

So instead of trying to describe it or show it to you in pictures which simply cannot do justice to real life, I’ll tell you about our visit through a series of buffalo pictures. Though hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, North America’s biggest mammal made a rebound and is literally everywhere in and around Yellowstone.

buffalo may 29

One: When we arrived in the late afternoon of Memorial Day at one of the KOA Kampgrounds west of West Yellowstone, Montana, we were greeted by this colorful statue, part of a public art installation by the Buffalo Roam Art Project.

The late Joe Halko, a Montana artist and sculptor, created the buffalo model from which a mold was developed and rendered copies in fiberglass by none other than Fiberstock Inc. of, wait for it, Buffalo, Minnesota (interesting trivia: I was born 50 years ago in Buffalo, Minnesota). Artists from four neighboring states painted 26 buffalo and 10 calves, and a dozen painted buffalo still exist in various locations around West Yellowstone.

This particular buffalo, painted by Jan Johansen, is titled “Now and Then” and features images of camping through history. “My buffalo celebrates America’s love of nature and the outdoors,” writes the aritst. “With the invention of the automobile, camping boomed. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yellowstone National Park.”

buffalo statue

Two: In order to get to Yellowstone National Park, we drove through West Yellowstone every morning, and this imposing life-size bronze statue by Mike Flanagan greeted us at the city entrance.

 

buffalo close

Three: More than once, we observed buffalo munching on grass just feet from the roadway. This majestic beast was eating breakfast in Hayden Valley, a fairly common sight if you’re driving around inside the park early in the morning or late in the day.

buffalo may 31

Four: One rainy day, we decided to skip the park and pay a visit to the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone. It’s a nice little museum, if a little dingy, about Yellowstone’s history. Another painted buffalo from the Buffalo Roam Art Project stands outside the museum, and there’s a second one inside.

buffalo june 1

Five: Another drive through the park, another herd of buffalo (can you spy the calf? Most buffalo calves are born in April and May, and their reddish fur makes them stick out). In this shot, you can see the ground steaming—that’s not that buffalo’s breath. Of course, if you know anything about Yellowstone besides its large mammals, you know it is home to the largest concentration of thermal features on earth. The ground steams. The water steams. Geysers of steaming water shoot out of random holes. Steaming water pours over muddy steps of limestone. It’s a wild and beautiful place.

buffalo june 2

Six: Painters and bronze sculptors aren’t the only artists who’ve drawn inspiration from the bison. A skilled wood carver exhibits works at Send It Home yarn & quilt shop, 30 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone. You can also find all kinds of Western-themed and Montana-inspired quilt fabric and craft projects to take home and remind you of all things Yellowstone.

 

buffalo june 4

Seven: One day, we drove from West Yellowstone through Yellowstone park to Grand Teton National Park. If you have the time, I highly recommend this diversion. We headed back northish when we reached Jackson, Wyoming and chose to take the Teton Pass back through Idaho and Montana. The Teton mountain range is impressive, even from the back side in cities like Driggs, Idaho, where we saw this buffalo guarding main street.

buffalo june 5

Eight: We woke up at 4:30 a.m. one day in order to drive the suggested route for Wildlife Day in the Yellowstone Association’s Yellowstone In A Day book. That route took us through the “Serengeti of North America” in Yellowstone’s northern range from Mammoth Hot Springs nearly to Cooke City, Montana. The book recommended leaving from Mammoth by dawn, but the early alarm was worth it. This was our view while we enjoyed yogurt and granola in the cab of the truck. We saw nearly 1,000 head of buffalo before 9 a.m. (I’m not exaggerating), and almost none on the way home. We also saw a number of elk, mule deer and pronghorn. We hoped to see an elusive bear or wolf, but no. On other days, we spied moose, a coyote and eagles. We avoided a lot of traffic by getting into the park so early and did so another day, too.

buffalo taco salad

Nine: Didn’t expect this shot, did you? We enjoyed bison tacos, mine in the form of a taco salad on one evening. Bison meat is readily available in the small supermarkets in West Yellowstone and elsewhere. Try it! You’ll like it!

 

buffalo june 7

Ten: One of the perks of joining Yellowstone Forever is a tchotchke in the form of a hat or a “plush toy” (I called it a “stuffed buffalo,” and I was quickly corrected—see Image 12 for that).

Yellowstone Forever is the club for supporters committed to visitor education and park preservation. For a $35 charitable contribution, I got a 15 percent discount on two books I found at one of the park stores, both of which I highly recommend: Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foodlhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey and Yellowstone in a Day, the field guide for tourists on a tight schedule I mentioned in Image 8).

My miniature schnauzer enjoyed playing with her miniature buffalo. The dog won.

buffalo june 8

Eleven: The buffalo has a high profile advertisers have seized upon. More than one motel and restaurant in West Yellowstone have buffalo or an allusion to buffalo in their names. After a day of observing wild life and taking in the thermal features in Yellowstone park, we enjoyed spicy bloody Marys and juicy burgers at the Buffalo Bar in West Yellowstone (which is also a casino and sells Ross Taylor Original items). Ross Taylor makes things like golf putters and canes from buffalo pizzles—not sure that that is? Look it up). My Beloved invested in one of Ross Taylor’s unique shoe horns.

buffalo june 9

Twelve: This stuffed buffalo is on display at the Buffalo Bar, and it’s probably the safest way to see one up close. Live bison are wild animals and can be dangerous, if you don’t know. Three people have been killed in Yellowstone when they got too close to angry and/or unpredictable bulls.

buffalo in front of hotel

A Baker’s Dozen: Why stop at 12 when I have 13 memorable buffalo images of our trip? I almost missed this lonesome figure when we were driving by the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. He was wallowing in a dust bowl one morning, so perfectly still and centered between the hotel and the lake when we drove by that he could have been a statue. Truly a majestic sight.

Tomorrow: Top 5 tips for seeing Yellowstone National Park

Meditation for sojourners

travelers

“Remember, we are all travelers. From birth till death we travel between the eternities. As you make the journey we hope that the days ahead will be pleasant for you, profitable for society, a help for those less fortunate than you, and a source of joy and comfort to those who know and love you best.”

~ Bonnie Yeo

I found these wise words from Bonnie Yeo in her book Montana Meanderings: A Collection of Recipes, Old Time Remedies and Montana Cartoons. The softcover was left in a Montana cafe for impatient diners to chew on while they waited for lunch to be served.

Turns out, her thoughts stuck with me longer than my meal.

California: A Tale of Two Sequoias

One of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen in all my travels across this amazing Earth is General Sherman.

tree general sherman

General Sherman, center

General Sherman is the world’s biggest tree (by volume) and is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old. That makes the tree older than Christianity and, quite frankly, most dirt.

Gazing on this beautiful tree makes one feel distinctly like a mosquito – an irritating little blood sucker whose life is a blink and whose death is a smear of blood that is wiped away in a single breath.

General Sherman is a sequoia, a genus of redwood coniferous trees, found only at a certain elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Sierra Nevada is situated mostly in California, and it also boasts Yosemite National Park, where we observed first-hand the “tunnel view” of the park which features Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Waterfall. Breathtaking.

California is, of course, home to Napa Valley, too, where we spent nearly two weeks sipping on some of the best wine on earth, grown in the distinctive valley. We got there by driving across the Central Valley with an abundance of rich soil where most of the country’s almonds, olives, strawberries and celery are grown.

It’s a state rich in natural beauty and natural resources.

And it’s where 39 million Californians call home.

Including the well-rounded bleach blonde who, in dropping off her equally bronzed and perfectly coiffured friends behind the Boon Fly Café, managed to block the narrow passageway for a solid five minutes while she chatted with her buddies as they unloaded … something …. obviously important, but unseen … behind her vehicle. She was clearly the most important person visiting the cafe that day.

My Beloved and I were attempting to leave the premises (what’s the rule about elevators? Always let passengers exit before you board, right? Isn’t that wise advice for busy parking lots, too?). When Bleach Blonde eventually got back behind the wheel and looked as if she was finally ready to proceed to the parking lot behind us, my Beloved didn’t back up to make way for her. Instead, he inched our pick-up forward (I love him for his ballsiness), which forced Bleach Blonde to back up (which she should have done in the first place and certainly without hesitation once she returned to her vehicle).

Then she had the gall to stare me down as we passed. She! Was ticked! At us! For making her! Back up!

Oh, really!

She was driving an enormous, gleaming black Toyota Sequoia, pretty much the biggest sports utility vehicle on the road.

Of course.

Unfortunately, Bleach Blonde is Exhibit No. 1 in my book of Arrogant Californians, who seem to inhabit the state at an above average rate.

Have I ever told you about the visit I paid many long years ago to a bed-and-breakfast in San Diego?

Surely I have (because I’m still smarting from the glance two decades ago of the Californian looking down her nose at me as she marveled at my origin). But just in case you missed it, let me regale you.

Being a Midwesterner means sometimes defending one’s residence to people who aren’t from the Midwest.

I remember a conversation one morning at a San Diego bed-and-breakfast with a California couple. When I told them we were from Minnesota, they exclaimed, “Minnesota! Who would ever want to live there? You must be crazy!”

As Californians, they apparently thought they knew Minnesota to be a vast wasteland near the Canadian border where it’s always winter and residents rarely emerge from their igloos.

It’s cold in Minnesota, and winter is long, and that bitter season is one of the reasons I became a Minnesota transplant for a while living two states south.

But it’s not so bad that only crazy people live there (only some of the people who live there are crazy). And for the record, despite Illinois’ history of criminal governors and high interstate highway tolls, that Midwest state is also not filled with a bunch of rubes, and it’s a nice place to live.

In my limited experience in California, but certainly during my most recent visit, the only polite and deferential Californians we met were the ones we were paying. Servers, clerks, Uber drivers, the woman at the veterinarian office – all of them were pleasant, some joys to meet.

California drivers? If they weren’t passing us going 100 miles an hour on winding mountain roads, they were cutting us off in eight lanes of traffic. Some of them were borderline psychotic.

California RVers in the parks we stayed who apparently sussed us out by our Illinois license plates? Let’s just say they were cool. If they acknowledged our existence at all.

Most of the pourers at the wineries we visited were quite friendly (I’m thinking of you, Miner Winery, and Jean-Pierre at CRU. Impeccable). But as soon as you tried to hand over a 2-for-1 pass, we got the side-eye and anemic splashes of the vino. The message: Coupons are so low-class. Midwesterners use coupons. Therefore, Midwesterners are low-class.

Even as I write this, I am aware of my hypocrisy and error. By generalizing Californians as aloof snobs, then I am stereotyping just like I believe Californians do as they look at me and think “Midwestern hick.” I have many fine friends of California origins; immediately, I think specifically of two of my virtual friends, both former Creative Memories field leaders, who are among the hardest working, God-fearing and kindest people I know (and, let’s be honest, they friended me even though I’m quite obviously from the Midwest, where Creative Memories had its home office). So let’s be clear: Not all people who live in California drive Sequoias and behave as if they’re the biggest tree in the forest.

But.

Some do.

Which is one of the reasons I believe California is a nice place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Where the women are strong and the living is easy (and never the twain shall meet)

Land of 10,000 lakes.

State of only two seasons: Winter and road construction.

Where all the children are above average.

Minnesota is home to a few hyperbolic descriptions, and most recently WalletHub named it the country’s least stressed state, making it most relaxed, I suppose.

Who is WalletHub to make such declarations? WalletHub monitors credit scores, and its analysts compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 33 key indicators of stress ranging from average hours worked per week to personal bankruptcy rate to share of adults getting adequate sleep.

And Minnesota ranked as No. 51 on the most stressed list.

Are Minnesotans the least stressed people I’ve met in my travels around the country?

I don’t know. If giving a friendly wave or acknowledging the presence of a sojourner with a nod as one’s paths cross is manifestation of lack of stress, then yes, Minnesotans have the corner on a relaxed demeanor. (Frequently outside of Minnesota, I will acknowledge someone with a “good morning” or a “hello”—a fellow jogger going the opposite direction, a guy walking his dog, a woman washing her hands at a neighboring sink in the restroom—and it’s as if I’ve surprised them by having a voice. Or a smile. Some residents of the coasts go out of their way to avoid making eye contact.)

The Minnesota compulsion to greet strangers, some would attribute to the phenomenon of Minnesota Nice. Perhaps. I have heard residents of the state—both natives and short-termers—describe Minnesota Nice as passive-aggressive. I’m skeptical. Minnesota Nice may be passive—”After you.” “No, after you.” “No, please be my guest, go ahead,” ad infinitum—but it’s not veiled aggression. So maybe it is the result of being trusting and assuming the best and getting a good night’s sleep.

One of the factors in WalletHub’s stress index is health and safety related stress factors. Apparently, Minnesotans have among the highest number of psychologists per capita and get the most hours of sleep a night. I come from a family with a long history of cherishing naps and believing nothing good happens after midnight. And that’s to say nothing of the 16 hours of darkness in the long, long winter months. What else you gonna do but sleep? Well, there is something else, I suppose, which might contribute to one of the lowest divorce rates in the country (another stress indicator).

Minnesota also ranks No. 50 in money-related stress factors (only Wyoming is lower), certainly due in  part to the frugal nature of born-and-bred natives. Author Garrison Keillor slyly notes this in his book Lake Wobegon Days: “So the Council changed [the town’s name] one more time, from Lake Wobegone to Lake Wobegon. Businessmen didn’t order new stationery right away, however, not even those who favored the change, but used all their New Albion stock until it ran out.”

In any case, I can take some of my good habits like eating right and maintaining a good credit score with me wherever I choose to settle someday, and the index may offer some insight on where not to settle (let’s just say Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Kentucky aren’t exactly calm and soothing places to reside).

If Minnesota is true to form, it’s not taking pride in its least-stressed status.

“Seldom has a town made such a sacrifice in remaining unrecognized so long,” he said, though other speakers were quick to assure him that it had been no sacrifice, really, but a true pleasure.

~ Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days

In search of Bigfoot? He’s everywhere in the Pacific Northwest

big foot forest

Can you see a yeti through that forest?

One has to jog only a few lonely roads in the Pacific Northwest to believe it’s a good area of the country for serial killers.

The roads are so remote and forested, the bodies may never be found. (This is not a joke; California, Washington and Oregon are Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in the per capita serial murder rate. Single joggers beware.)

This may also explain why it the land of Bigfoot. He can dodge the prying eyes of the paparazzi pretty effectively in the fairly unpopulated forests of California, Oregon and western Montana.

But evidence of his presence exists everywhere.

big foot plaster cast

That’s a big foot.

The California Redwoods state park in Humboldt has on display a cast of his foot print. It’s on display like scientific evidence, not simply evidence of a legend. Want to buy a facsimile? You can at the Trees of Mystery attraction in Klamath, Calif.

Bigfoot, a very rare or possibly fictional North American primate, goes by many names. He’s also known as Sasquatch. Or he may be a yeti. In deep winter, he may be an Abominable Snowman (though the snowy version is rumored to live in Nepal or possibly Tibet; could be a relative). Whatever you call him, he is a large, hairy, bipedal humanoid who has been dissected by every mystery television show known to man. I remember being introduced to him in the early ’80s by the voice of Leonard Nimoy on repeats of “In Search Of … .”

“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine. Today we are In Search Of … Bigfoot.”

Maybe the producers could have used a map.

big foot map

Pick up a detailed diagram at the Burl n’ Drift Novelty Shop at the Ancient Redwoods RV Park near Redcrest, California.

And he’s apparently been sighted at the Klamath Camper Corral, as evidenced by this sign:

big-foot-sign.jpg

Try sleeping peacefully 20 yards from that!

Artists across the Pacific Northwest have been inspired by his visage. Notice his hair is the same color as a redwood tree.

Is Bigfoot real? Of course, he is. He’s as real as Coca-Cola and low, low prices at Walmart. Bigfoot is big business. So he must exist.

The glorious picture of Yosemite

Yosemite valley

Look closely and you can see Bridalveil Fall, and behind it Half Dome

 

“Pursuing my lonely way down the valley, I turned again and again to gaze on the glorious picture, throwing up my arms to inclose it as in a frame. After long ages of growth in the darkness beneath the glaciers, through sunshine and storms, it seems now to be ready and waiting for the elected artists, like yellow wheat for the reaper; and I could not help wishing that I were that artist. I had to be content, however, to take it into my soul.”

These words are naturalist John Muir’s, but if I were more eloquent, they could have been mine. The vistas at Yosemite National Park seem to prove the existence of God. I couldn’t preserve it, especially with my little phone camera, so I had to be content to take it into my soul.

We visited Yosemite earlier this year for one reason: El Capitan. It’s the sheer rock face on the left in the valley view above, and it was made famous (to me anyway) in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Trekkers: Can’t live with ’em, can’t understand ’em.

Shake your head if you must.

el capitan

El Capitan is nothing if not imposing. That’s our little truck there at the bottom right.

The scene to which I’m referring occurs early in the movie. Capt. Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Spock are camping at Yosemite. Having been there now, I can imagine Star Fleet officers stationed at headquarters in the San Francisco area taking shore leave at nearby Yosemite. Very little else about the 1989 movie makes any sense, but this does.

While free-climbing El Capitan (which is rich with irony—a Star Fleet captain climbing El Capitan), Kirk loses his grip and falls (foreshadowing?). Spock, who is hovering nearby wearing jet-powered boots, catches him before he smashes at the bottom.

It’s a great scene that puts one of Earth’s natural wonders in the spotlight. So when I had the opportunity, I had to see it myself. “Because it’s there!” (That’s Kirk’s line in the movie for those of you who don’t memorize such trivia).

As you might expect, seeing Yosemite in person is nothing like seeing it in a movie. Set in the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s remote, but it was worth the trip. It’s a beautiful and wild place, and surprisingly busy in mid-April. I can’t imagine how crazy it must be there in July.

yosemite-meadow.jpg

Even crowded, the meadow near the foot of El Capitan in the Merced River valley is wide open and relatively quiet. This is a good place to take in the majesty around you. Unless you intend to free-climb El Capitan. Good luck to you.

For a review of The Wild Muir, a book of Muir’s adventures stories from which the opening quote is taken, check out my author blog.

Message in a bottle … or at least on the patio

lock message

Seen on the patrio at CRU @ The Annex in Napa, Calif. While sipping wine. Of course.