(Ok, I know this is WAY LATE but that’s what happens when you have photos on one computer and write a post an another…)
Typically, every year Hubby and I “opt out” from the jumble of Thanksgiving and Black Friday and use that time off of work to head out to the middle of nowhere and camp. (Even REI does #optoutside so you can share your photos from your hiking adventures, rather than getting run-over by a crowd trying to get the cheap tvs at Walmart for Black Friday.) A year ago we went to Big Bend National Park, and this year we decided to go to Palo Duro Canyon State Park outside of Amarillo, Texas. It’s the same amount of time in the car, and neither of us had ever been there before so we wanted to give it a shot. After we had booked our trip we discovered Run Away campers, and fell in love. They are affordable, they are comfortable, and they are TINY! We ordered our little Range Runner model camper (it’s actually the largest model they have at 6’x8′) from Florida and it was delivered just a few days later! We were excited to get it before our camping trip because that meant we would be able to glamp (glam camp) instead of being in a tent, which had been the original plan. The first chance I got, I called the Park Service phone number for reservations, but they were out of RV camp sites! I was sad, but I thought, ‘One last trip of rocks in the back and waking up stiff. After this, we will use the camper.’ But as we got closer to the date, every time we checked the weather it was looking worse and worse. The high for the day dropped from being in the 40s to being in the low 20s with freezing rain. It was going to be miserable. We were going to cancel, defeated and depressed. Until Hubby got the idea to check the RV site availability again. Lo and behold, other people had checked the weather too, and cancelled their trip so there were spaces available! I did a happy dance and we started planning for the trip once again. We left before the crack of dawn on Thanksgiving Day since it was a 9 hour drive, and got there just in time for the park office to tell us that the weather is going to get worse, so they will probably close the office over the weekend. “That’s fine,” we told them. “We have a tv and a stack of movies.” But we had no idea what we were in for.
The rain turned to sleet, and the sleet turned to ice. We tried hiking around our camp site a little bit but the mud was caking onto anything that touched it and making a huge mess. I was afraid of slipping and hurting my back so I was being extremely careful. We got back to the camper to thaw out and ended up having to heat up canned soup inside the camper because it was too miserable to cook outside.
From Thursday night to Saturday morning we watched 3 of the Planet of the Apes movies and Season 2 of Scrubs. We got a little bit of cabin fever so we bundled up and headed out to do a little birding once the ice stopped falling. There was a thick layer of ice on every surface. Walking through parking lots was difficult because it was so slippery. But I got some great bird shots anyway! We saw a huge flock of turkeys (30 or more) and each bird had ice frozen on its back. We went to a birding station and the Cardinals and Finches had frozen feathers also.
We headed back to camp to hike around a bit more (now that the ground was frozen, the mud wasn’t an issue) and Hubby saw the Park Host come by to fill the bathrooms with toilet paper. He went to go talk to them and they told his that the road to get out of the park was closed and we wouldn’t be able to get out until noon on Sunday! That was a problem. With a 9 hour drive, that was cutting it close. What if the roads didn’t improve and we were stuck longer? The last thing I wanted was to get home at 2 am and have to go to work the next day. So Hubby and I loaded up into the truck and checked the road for ourselves. He has all wheel drive so we weren’t concerned, and any point that the road looked icy, we would get out and check it before driving on it. (The road to get out of the park goes up through the canyon, so if you lose traction on the icy road, it’s quite a tumble down). The road seemed fine as we headed up, and I had him stop a few times so I could get pictures of the beautiful ice-covered grasses and yucca and barbed-wire fence.
I even heard coyotes howling VERY close to me and I was so happy to hear them. Every time I hear coyotes, I’m the only one around for miles (while Hubby sits in the warm car!) and it seems like they are singing to me. I even saw one of the singers a few minutes later!
We finally made our way to the park entrance and saw that the gate was wide open. The park host had told us it was closed and locked and we couldn’t get out! So we looked at each other and came to this conclusion: If the road freezes, it will be over night. The road is passable now, but in the morning there is no guarantee. So we got out while the getting was good and headed to Amarillo to spend the night.
We headed back down the park road and hooked up the camper. In 20 minutes we were back on the road, carefully heading out of the park. The highway was frozen so we took it slow and then pulled into the parking lot of our destination: The Big Texan steak ranch. Part of our plan on this trip had been to eat at The Big Texan because it’s an icon! It has been on tv shows like Man vs. Food and Day Tripper because they do the 72 ounce steak challenge. You have to consume a 72 ounce steak, a baked potato, a shrimp cocktail, salad, and a bread roll, all in 60 minutes. Of course, we weren’t going to be PARTICIPATING in the steak challenge, but we still wanted to eat there. Also, as it turned out, The Big Texan has a hotel ON SITE so we didn’t have to go anywhere by the end of the night! The parking lot was an ice rink so I was really happy we didn’t have to get back on the highway and find somewhere else to stay. (Also, I just saw on their website that they now have an RV park too, so that’s good to know in case our next trip to Palo Duro gets cut short again!)
It’s literally a bunch of Cadillacs from the 1940s-1960s that were jammed into the ground in the 1970s as an art installation. The thing is, it’s legal to do graffiti art at this site. I guess that’s kind of the point – everyone is an artist if they are given the chance. We had never seen it before, and we might never come back to Amarillo again, so we had it on our list of must-dos while we were on the trip. We trudged out to the cars through the snow and ice, took a couple pictures, and got back to our heated car as quickly as possible. But I noticed some interesting things while we were there: there are so many layers of paint on the cars, that it looks like the cars are melting.
There had been people out at the site spray-painting in the snow and ice, so that the frost on the cars was painted orange and blue. The snow on the ground was also used as a temporary canvas, saying the typical “So-and-so Loves So-and-so” and happy holidays. Also, even the barbed-wire that surrounds the property had been painted. It was surprisingly beautiful.
Once we were done at Cadillac Ranch we headed home, stopping in Dallas to see some family, and then making our slow trudge home (the drive from Dallas to Houston is supposed to take 3 hours, but for any number of reasons, it always takes 6).
Our trips are always adventurous even if they don’t go as planned. I guess that’s how I know I love my Hubby too, because instead of being ready to kill each other by the end of the trip, we were planning our next adventure!
Wow, it took a lot longer to get this post pulled together than I thought it would! I finally learned how to put Watermarks on my photos, so I was trying to get that done before I posted these photos. So, without further ado – here is the final installment of our epic Yellowstone trip! You can catch up and read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.
Seeing as how this was a trip to Yellowstone, it was high time we spent some time in the park. By this time we moved to our cabin on the Idaho/Montana border, just outside of the western park entrance. Based on my limited knowledge, the western portion of the park was where you were most likely to see the wolves, so I made sure to book several nights at these cabins to give us a good chance at seeing them. It was also cheaper than staying in the town of West Yellowstone, which is mainly just a tourist attraction since you have to go through the town in order to use the West Entrance. This is also where the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center is located, and I wanted to be sure to check that out as well.
On our first full day in West Yellowstone, we headed straight to the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but I still learned A LOT. They had dioramas of different seasons and species, and had a lot of information about why the grizzly and wolf numbers dropped so quickly. (Mainly, the government at the time thought of bears and wolves as pests, and hired government trappers to kill them off. But more on that later). We were able to watch the grizzlies in their enclosure wrestle and play, search for food under rocks, and munch on tasty elk legs! (Road killed animals go to the Center). The wolves that were there are all extremely old, for wolf standards. They all looked like they were about 15 or so years old and were happy to lay in the sun and get tasty free meals that they didn’t have to hunt down on their arthritic legs.
After the center we went next door to an Authentic Mexican Restaurant. I know, I know. Why on Earth would you go get Mexican food in Montana? It was there, I was starving, and I didn’t think about it. Okay?!
Needless to say, it was terrible food. No flavor. I mean really. I couldn’t make food that flavorless on purpose. Live and learn, right? Now I’m passing on my knowledge to you so you have a better meal somewhere else.
After lunch we headed into the park to look for wild wolves! Yay!
One of the best things about Yellowstone is also one of the worst things about Yellowstone: the number of tourists. We were there before the summer crowd, but toward the end of the week more and more people started coming into the park because it was a holiday weekend coming up. So by Wednesday the park was packed! However, like I said, this is also a great thing because when one person sees awesome wildlife, everyone pulls their car over and you are sure to see whatever it is that they are looking at.
We saw a bunch of cars pulled over so of course we pulled over too. We got to see a huge coyote hunting rodents in their tunnels by pouncing on the ground and breaking their tunnels open, much like they do through the snow (see Part 3).
We continued on into the park, headed toward Lamar Valley, where everyone said is where you see the wolves. We stopped at another pull off where we saw a ton of cars and people with spotting scopes, and sure enough, our first sighting of wild wolves! While talking to a gentleman who had a spotting scope the size of our rental car, we were informed that they had killed an elk earlier in the day, and they were still lounging around letting their fat, happy bellies settle. There was a black wolf, and white wolf, and a dark grey wolf. They were really far off so I didn’t get great pictures, but they were wolves!
After the wolves wandered off, we continued up to Lamar Valley. On the way we got to see a black bear or two, but our only focus was wolves. We got to Lamar Valley and it was the most beautiful place I think I have ever seen. It is now on my favorite places list. Mountains, rolling foothills, herds of bison and antelope, grizzlies grazing on grasses and flowers. It was spectacular. We knew we were in the right place because of the number of people pulled over on the roadside with their scopes and cameras ready. Normally you would wonder what they are looking at, but then you notice that everyone is mingling, and simply waiting. They knew something was coming, and I wasn’t going to miss it.
So while we waited with the pros, we got to see some great stuff. Antelope coming close, bison calves running and playing, a grizzly family running away from some mysterious unseen object up on the hill. Then we noticed the Giant Grizzly on the river below us. Now, I’m no good at judging distance, but I would guess she was about 500-600 yards away. She was feeding on a wolf kill from several days before (according to the pros that were waiting for the wolves to show up) and her name is Scar Face. I’m sure for good reason, but she was far enough away that I had to only take their word for it. According to the pros though, Scar Face has been photographed more times than the Kardashians; I’m guessing because she frequents the area that the wolves are often found in, so people do like I did, and take pictures of her while we are waiting for the main attraction 😉
However, while we waited, Hubby noticed that people were leaving. There were still the same number of people there waiting, but the crowd itself had changed; the pros had given up to try a different spot!
I suddenly panicked – What do I do? Do I stay here and hope that they show up? Or do I try my luck somewhere else? And what if I leave and then find out that the wolves showed up right after I left? Luckily Hubby was there to help me decide. Lamar Valley is pretty big after all, so maybe they will be in a different area. We headed back down the road a ways, and when we were sure we were no longer in the valley we turned back around and headed back to a different pull off we saw. I was getting a little discouraged because by hearing all of the stories, wolves would be everywhere! I wanted to get some good pictures of wolves! Not just zoom in on a picture and have to point out “See? That black speck? That’s a wolf!” I had to see them closer!
By this time my back was aching pretty bad, so I wasn’t going to get out of the car unless there was something photo-worthy, so Hubby got out and made friends with some Canadians who are living in an RV and watching the wolves for the summer. (Fun Fact: the wolves of Yellowstone came from Alberta, Canada. It’s funny that the Albertans come all the way down to Wyoming to see the wolves they gave us!) Suddenly, out of nowhere, a black wolf runs by, down on the river about 1,000 yards away. I’m not sure where she came from, but we saw her swim the river and dash up the mountain before she was gone. I got a couple pictures of her, but nothing spectacular since she was running pretty much the whole time. Apparently she was Number 89, and she is a rogue female that frequents the valley.
We learned a lot about the wolves by talking to all of the “wolf chasers” (or “sighters” I guess would be a better term). Because the National Park Service is broke (because it’s always the good programs that get their funding cut first) they could no longer afford to tranquilize the wolves from a helicopter. This leads to shotting them with net guns and tranquilizing them once the researchers have gotten up to them, so the wolves have gotten a bit skittish of people. We also learned that the research program is now on a voluntary basis. The rangers that were paid to follow the wolves now must volunteer their time because the park service can’t afford to pay them. Such a sad situation. What is good though, is that there is such thing as “Citizen Science” much like with bird surveys. Enough people are interested in this subject, that they seek out the animals, watch their behavior, and report back to the rangers. Many of the observers know the rangers and vice versa, so the data that are provided are understood to be factual and non-biased (mostly).
After Number 89 ran up the hill, we started heading back, since it was getting late and we had several hours to drive back to our cabin. We stopped again at our first location because I saw something feeding on the same carcass that Scar Face had been eating earlier.
IT WAS A SILVER WOLF.
We stopped the car and I ran up the hill with my camera and tripod (I had the speed clip this time). While we were watching this grey, I decided to get some video of him feeding (unfortunately, WordPress won’t let me upload my awesome video…I’ll have to figure out how to get it onto YouTube or something). In the video you can hear Hubby and I quietly discussing if the wolf was wearing a collar or not, and if Hubby was going to hide behind me so he wouldn’t get eaten. I stopped filming right before the wolf came right passed us so I could get some still shots of him as well. I probably should have just kept filming because the pictures didn’t turn out great (it was getting dark and he was running) but live and learn, right? (that seems to be a theme for today). After the grey ran across the street into on-coming traffic and almost got plowed by a car, he disappeared up the hill and was gone. At his closest, he was probably 20 yards from us.
Ah. Maze. Ing. I was so happy, and he had gotten so close! I was in heaven. But of course you know what that means, right?
I HAD TO SEE THEM AGAIN. This wasn’t nearly enough. Andrew and I were already planning the next day. Get up SUPER early and get to Lamar Valley before sunrise because that is reportedly the best time of day to see the wolves.
Of course then it took us a few hours to get back to our cabins. And it doesn’t get dark until about 9:30…So we didn’t get back to the cabins until midnight. Last thing we needed to do was get up at 3:30 am after going to sleep at midnight, so we decided that the next day we would relax, get up whenever we felt like it, see the rest of the park, and go to bed early that night so we could get up super early the NEXT morning.
So we did the whole “geyser” thing again the next day and relaxed, doing our last bit of souvenir shopping as well. We had dinner at a restaurant/bar in West Yellowstone called The Slippery Otter, and this place was great! The owner was super nice, they had great food, and really good beer. Finally, we had found good food in Montana!
The next morning we got up at 3:30 am and I drove into the park. At about 5 am we were flagged down by a truck coming up the road, telling us to pull over because 4 HUGE BOATS (on trailers, duh) were about to be coming down the road, and they needed as much road space as they could get! Well of course he flagged us down at a terrible spot – not only was there no shoulder to pull onto, but there was actually tons of tree debris on the side of the road from doing road work in the park the day before! HOW MUCH SPACE DID THEY NEED?! I hoped we had scooted over enough; all we could do is wait. And all I could do while I waited was think about how I’m going to miss the wolves because I’m pinned between a boat trailer and the hillside! Finally they drove by without incident and we headed down the road again, but slowly this time. One thing I didn’t count on was the mount of fog that we had to drive through. Cool morning+geothermal activity=lots and lots of scary fog. I love looking at fog; I hate driving in it. I was super nervous that a herd of bison would be in the road in the fog and I was going to miss my opportunity to see the wolves because there was a dead bison on the hood of my car. So I drove carefully and as quickly as I dared. As the sky began to lighten, it was easier to see that we were engulfed in fog, and it was much brighter than I had thought it would be. I was going really to miss the wolves!!!
Finally we made it to Lamar Valley. I was in such a hurry to get to my spot and wait, that when we saw a truck stopped in the road I almost went around him. Then Hubby saw why he was stopped – the same Silver wolf from before was standing on the hillside!
The next events were a blur – I took tons of photos, and he wandered off into the sage brush. The truck drove away, and we waited to see if he would come back. He did, and he was actually carrying a child’s stuffed animal in his mouth. No, I wasn’t confused and he really had a live dead squirrel in his mouth – it was a toy. You could see the tag on the plush, and the little stubby legs. We have no idea why, but he was carrying around a toy. He dropped it after a few minutes of carrying it around, and then he sort of zig-zagged in front of our car while he tried to decide where to go, until he walked across the road back toward the river where we had first seen him a few nights before. Then Ranger Rick pulled up. Seriously. That’s his name. He’s a Ranger named Rick. He asked what we were looking at, and when we told him a wolf, he pulled over and got out his radio telemetry equipment – SCIENCE AT WORK! Sort of. Rick couldn’t identify the wolf because the batteries on his collar were apparently dead; but that didn’t matter, because I got some amazing photos of him while he was with us. Suddenly more and more people started showing up, and we met a huge group of wolf chasers. Rick told us that the black female would be coming by soon (her radio collar was working so they knew where she was), so we waited until, far off in the distance, we saw her making her way through the river valley.
By this point my back was killing me. I could no longer appreciate the magnificent scenery I was surrounded by, because I was in blinding pain. I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor now. We headed to the northern portion of the park where the doctor’s office was, but they didn’t open until 8:30, so we had to wait. I was about in tears by this point and when they finally opened, I was at my breaking point. Talking to anyone would cause my voice to break, and I finally broke down and cried in front of the nurse while he asked me all the questions that he had to ask, and cried some more while talking to the doctor. He wrote me prescriptions for muscle relaxers and Vicodin and we had to drive up further north to get them filled at the pharmacy. By the time I received my prescriptions and ate some breakfast, I was done. It was probably 10 am on my second to last day of my vacation, and I couldn’t move without being in blinding pain. I was heartbroken that this is how our vacation ended. Hubby had to drive for the next 2 days because my drugs kept me knocked out. But while I was awake I was still in pain.
Our last night was spent in Centennial, Wyoming, through the Snowy Range. The Snowy Range is one of my favorite places in the US, but I slept through it because of my medicine. We got to the hotel and ate dinner in one of the 4 restaurants in town, and then I went to the room to sleep. Hubby, since he was still on vacation, wanted to go check out the town, so he bar-hopped at the 4 bars in town and met wonderful people wherever he went. I was glad he had a good time, because I felt guilty for being the reason we had to cut the trip early.
Now my back is feeling better, although not 100%, but Hubby and I are already talking about going back to see the wolves again.
But the saving grace for the entire trip was that I was in Canada. You know what else is in Canada?
I swear, they are the nicest people you will ever meet.
They go out of their way to make you feel welcome and comfortable. It’s quite refreshing.
After my terrible first day, things started looking up.
My baggage showed up in the middle of the night…
And even though I had asked them to, the front desk people didn’t call me at 1 am to tell me it was here. And you know what? I’m glad they made that decision – what was I going to do with that information at 1 am? Run down and get my bag? No, I would have said ok, great. I’ll pick it up in the morning. So why call and wake me up about it? Better to just let me sleep and figure it out later. They are so nice.
I found out that my rental car wasn’t going to be ready until 10 am. I notified the people I was in town to see, and instead of waiting around all day for me to show up, they offered to pick me up at my hotel and take me to the property. Nice warm truck being driven by someone who knew where they were going? I’m in.
And when I was done for the day, he dropped me off at the rental car place. And this was my rental car…
They said that because I was so nice and patient with them since they had run out of cars the day before, they were only charging me for an economy car, but gave me an All Wheel Drive Kia Sorrento.
And a free GPS Rental.
See! When you are nice, nice things happen!
However, I didn’t have time to go see the polar bears.
It was an hour drive and they close early in the winter, so instead I drove to nearby Hersey Lake and took some photos, adding 4 new species to my bird list in the meantime!
And I also got to see something completely new and foreign to me…
First time in my life I had seen a lake frozen solid. It kind of scared me, I’m not going to lie. I was sure if I ventured too close to the edge I would fall through, even though those are snow-mobile tracks going across the middle of it!
I met up with John again in the hotel bar that evening. The hotel staff were all having their staff Christmas Party, so it was me and him watching hockey in the bar and showing each other pictures of our dogs.
I had told him the night before after he so kindly paid for my dinner, that I would pay him back the next night. I’m sure he thought I had forgotten, but I always try to keep my word so I made sure to meet up with him again. Since the hotel staff were having their Christmas party and the restaurant was closed, we went to The Restaurant (I’m not making that up).
It was a dive restaurant (my favorite!) that was attached to a gas station.
I told John that I had to have the traditional Canadian dish of french fried and gravy, what the Canadians call Poutine. He said that The Restaurant was the best place in town for that, so that’s where I wanted him to take me.
We didn’t realize that they were close to closing when we walked in, but we ordered our Poutine (Quebec style, with cheese curds) and a couple sodas and sat and talked for a good while. There aren’t many people that I can just sit and talk to as if I have known them for years, so it was nice to be able to do that after I had had such a crappy trip.
After dinner the waitress came and got our plates with her purse in her hand, ready to go. We didn’t even notice that she was waiting on us! We got out as fast as we could and apologized over and over for making her wait. I paid for dinner like I told him I would, and then he asked if I had ever been to Tim Horton’s.
We ordered our coffee (decaf since it was like 9 pm by this time) and John had me pick out a Christmas ornament. He refused to let me pay for the coffee and ornament, saying, “it’s Christmas!”
Then he gave me a “toonie” which is the Canadian $2 coin, because he wanted to make sure I had actually seen a Polar Bear on my trip.
Again, we sat and talked like old friends, and enjoyed our coffee. He talked about once when he thought his eye was about to pop out of his head and I talked about when both my eardrums blew out in grad school. Then we discussed the differences of healthcare in Canada and in The US. It was great. John said that he had been trying really hard to NOT say “ahe?” the whole time (he apparently wasn’t doing a very good job of it because it was like every sentence) because “it’s so typically Canadian,” but all I did was laugh and say something along the lines of “I think it’s fine – you are Canadian afterall….”
The second day of my three day trip was spectacular.
John was a welcome new friend, and I hope we keep in touch.
Everyone else I met was so nice and made me wish I lived in Canada, simply because everyone in the country is automatically your friend.
However, seeing as how this was the temperature the entire time I was there…
As I sit here in Louisiana while someone is trying to fix the heater in the next room and I am in the kitchen with a heater blowing on me, a beanie on my head, and the oven turned on, I am reminded of much colder winter days in my past and think to myself, ‘this ain’t nothin’.”
One year in college, way out in the True West Texas (not that Amarillo is West Texas crap), it was bitter cold. I know, “it’s nothing compared to Northern Winters” but it was cold for a Texas desert! Several days in a row over the Thanksgiving holiday it got UP to 7 degrees F during the day. I don’t even remember what it got down to at night, but it was bitter cold. Hubby and I were working at a vet clinic outside of town and we were completely booked – everyone was boarding their pets for the holiday. That’s all fine and dandy except a lot of our kennels were outdoors. We had tarps up to keep the wind out, and thick blankets down for the dogs, (and we only kept the biggest dogs with the longest hair outside, but their water bowls kept freezing solid. I would go outside every hour and trade their bowls out with warm water from the faucet. We also had horses at the clinic that week, so I would have to go outside with a rubber mallet and a small blow torch to melt the water, so that the floats wouldn’t break from the water expanding as it froze.
One January there was a beautiful ice storm in the middle of the night. Hubby and I got up that morning, and it was so gorgeous, and we had nowhere to be, so he drove me all over town in his 4×4 truck and we took photos of horses and cows in the snow, and the mountains and trees and barbed wire in wrapped in ice.
Another year, also in January, Hubby and I decided to go to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I think it was New Years Weekend. We camped that night in the campground, and the next morning got up to hike Guadalupe Peak, the tallest mountain in Texas. We had a 5 gallon water jug sitting on the table that was half-frozen when we got up that morning! And of course, there is the infamous 14 Degree Weather from my wildhood.
While we were in Grad School, Hubby worked for NRCS through a grant, and that grant sent him to a conference in Grand Junction, Colorado. All I had to do was pay for my plane ticket, and I was able to tag along! This ALSO happened to be in January. (Come on, we lived there for 6 years! The odds are pretty good that it would be cold in January!) While he was at the conference during the day, I stayed nice and warm in the hotel room. But when he was done, we drove up to the Colorado National Monument. It was absolutely beautiful. Red sandstone, green cedar, and white snow. We hiked and drove as long as we could until it got too dark to see anything. We hardly touched the park, with as little of it as we were able to see. I can’t wait to go back.
So memories like these not only make me think of great stories, but they make me realize that I have been through worse, and I came out a stronger, more capable person because of it.
Not that anyone likes to do anything with their fingers tingling and hurting and numb from the cold….but I know it won’t kill me.
These are my silly travel stories where I use humor and sarcasm to explain other cultures and world events. I use this forum to be a voice for the Little Guy. Little Guys have tiny, squeaky voices and no one wants to hear them anyway.