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Death Valley Sailing Stones

July 9, 2019 - National Parks

The fat on my forearm began to render immediately, the skin crackling and puckering, the hairs standing on end. Death Valley feels like one of those industrial heat lamps in a restaurant kitchen that will sear the skin of a human hand. 

As I got out of the air conditioned van the skin on my neck started crawling like it does when my husband blows on my poison ivy.  All of this happened before I could plunk on a hat and unroll my sleeves and the thought crossed my mind that given only a few more moments, my brain might have begun budging around by the slow rolling boil of the juices in my skull. 

People come from all over to experience the heat of Death Valley, because who doesn’t want their fat rendered? 

I prefer vegetation with my heat.  But nothing grows on the Playa. Nothing blooms, wilts, or dies because it never gains a start. Between the heat, lack of moisture, and the low elevation air pressure, the earth is compact and unmoving. There were a few shimmery silver mirages on the road. Everything else was white hot, not a glancing white hot, but a straight on, there’s no escape, Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White, blinding white. 

The ground temperature can be 80° F hotter than the surrounding air. The alternating hard-pack scabbed and pocked earth under your boots looks random, but it’s not. Geometrical hexagons of mud form that are 3-4 inches across and configure in sets of three at 120° to each other. So says the universal language of geometry. 

the hexagons of packed earth on the floor of Death Valley

Geometry of Death Valley’s Playa

There may be an absence of plant life, but the sailing stones make up for the lack of greenery.

The sailing stones of Racetrack Playa are nocturnal.  Furthermore, they only move when no one’s looking.  Stones are the things you skip, or throw, or hide in a snowball. But some of these stones are hundreds of pounds, making them in my opinion, boulders. Aliens have been given the credit for this phenomenon and I can’t argue. I walked upon one and saw the skid marks fade into the distance and stood there for a long time as in observing a tennis match.  Scientists have claimed the explanation that the stones are awakened by a specific combination of natural events —  wind, an icing of water for a skid, and a fair amount of juju that no one fully understands and voilà, they move across the plain of the desert floor. 

Sailing Stone of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stone

 

the starkness of Death Valley

Stark Beauty Defined

 

 

 

John Batdorff of Batdorff Photography in Chicago, and his wife Staci Prince offer this photography workshop.  If you’re interested in seeing parts of Death Valley that you won’t see on your own, you should go.  The instruction was one-on-one, and everything was top-notch.  They are a delight to travel with and learn from. It was a fantastic trip, and they have a knack for summoning exquisite sunrises and sunsets in a place that seldom experiences the moisture required for clouds.  Thank you John and Staci. 

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The 5 Gateway Towns to Yellowstone National Park

Despite the general Western flavor of the towns that give residency to Yellowstone National Park’s gateways, before 1890 these five towns would have appeared an inconsonant mishmash of patched together backwoods watering holes.  But Yellowstone National Park, as vast and varied and tumultuous as it is, leaves no room for discord.

Like an army on a battlefield made cohesive by the power of a common cause, everything within its vast caldera and expansive rim has been pulled together, however begrudgingly, by the same forces of nature that once blew it apart. All those stray, eccentric pieces are now part of the YNP common denominator. But Yellowstone’s gateways are the Old West and the old west, still true to its hard fought infamy, continues to kick common denominators to the ever dusty curb.

Among the who’s who of western towns, Yellowstone National Park’s gateway towns embody our romanticized daydreams of the Old West. In other words they have an element of kitsch.  But it’s so guileless and enthusiastically presented that our expectations for an old west experience, however kitschy, are exceeded by the same leap the Colt revolver made over the bow and arrow.  We become immersed voyeurs to the old west ways, loving every moment of it. 

Small treasures offering inimitable charm and scenery, abundant wildlife, and a broad range of alternatives capable of meeting everyone’s entertainment needs, these towns will not disappoint.

Kitsch:  “Sentimentally charming, tacky and fun all rolled up in one. One catch with kitsch is that you’re never quite sure if it’s supposed to be serious or not. It’s that uncertainty that is amusing. Kitsch is melodramatic, overdone, gaudy and tacky or sentimental and folksy. It’s so bad that it’s cool.”  Yes, please. 

Map of the 5 Yellowstone entrances

Map of the 5 Yellowstone Entrances

** Exploring Yellowstone’s entrances and the towns anchoring them, takes homework.  The North Gate entrance in Gardiner, Montana is the only entrance that’s fully accessible and open year-round.  

West Yellowstone, Montana: West Gate Entrance

In 1905, E.H. Harriman, president of the Union Pacific Railroad, and Frank J. Haynes, president of Monida & Yellowstone Stage Line met in the area of West Yellowstone for a tour of the Park. Afterwards, Harriman constructed a railroad branch from St. Anthony, Idaho to the west entrance of the national park. By December 1907 the tracks were laid and when the snow pack melted, the first tourists made their way to the Park through this entrance in June 1908. Each summer, the “Yellowstone Special” train made trips daily from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone. West Yellowstone developed around this flow of tourists.  For reference, park tourists had already begun entering the North Gate from Gardiner, Montana in 1903. 

When you get to West Yellowstone, park the car.  The town is compact and meandering friendly.  

Not To Be Missed — Strolling, huckleberry ice cream, the Union Depot Dining Hall, and the Yellowstone Historic Center Museum.

West Yellowstone airport (WYS) is open to commercial flights (Delta) from June 1 – September 30. 

For 2019, this entrance opens April 19. 

 

sign for entering West Yellowstone, Montana

Fun Times Ahead

 

sign for huckleberry ice cream

Snacks and Kitsch

 

a cone of huckleberry ice cream

Out of Focus Huckleberry Ice Cream, In Focus Bare Feet

 

Jackson, Wyoming:  South Gate Entrance 

It’s easy to believe you’ve reached Yellowstone National Park when you haven’t — you’re still in Grand Teton National Park. Beauty begets beauty so the confusion is understandable. Grand Teton National Park begins about five miles north of Jackson on 191/89. The physical entrance gates to Grand Teton National Park are at Moose Junction, 12 miles north, and/or Moran Junction, about 30 miles north of Jackson.  The south entrance of Yellowstone National Park is about 50 miles north of Jackson on 191 (for reference, Old Faithful is approximately 40 miles further).  

Since we’re talking about Jackson in the context of Yellowstone’s South Entrance, in the fall (my favorite time of year there), you may be able to drive a distance towards Yellowstone from Jackson, but that entrance closes in October.  This area can see snowfall in the range of 300 inches over the winter season.  Which means if you don’t do your homework and you wind up in Jackson desiring to drive to Yellowstone after the entrance closes, you’ll have to drive west into Idaho, then north into Montana, east to Livingston (yep, all the way to Highway 90) and finally, south to Gardiner (the West entrance is closed for the winter as well so don’t go knocking on that door). Gardiner, Montana is home to the North Gate and the only Yellowstone entrance that’s open year-round.  Do your homework. The trip is about 200 miles of brutal driving. In other words, throw a kiss at Yellowstone because you won’t be seeing it until spring. One qualification, you can get enter the South entrance with a snowmobile.  

Jackson Hole’s airport (JAC) is open year round to commercial flights, typically Delta, United and Skywest, with occasional/seasonal flights available from American.

For 2019, this entrance opens May 10 and generally closes in October. 

50 Things To Do in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park

 

antler arches Jackson Hole Town Square

Antler Arches Jackson Town Square

 

stagecoach driver

Jackson Hole Stagecoach

 

western bluebird on a post at the base of the Tetons

Western Bluebird

 

atlas view map of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone area

Map of Jackson Hole & Yellowstone are

Cody, Wyoming: East Gate Entrance 

Cody’s offerings pivot around its progenitor Buffalo Bill Cody.  Which means one thing – you’re in for a show. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show ran for 30 years, making him the most famous entertainer in the world in the early 1900s.  Set aside plenty of time for your  52 mile drive from Cody to Yellowstone National Park.  President Theodore Roosevelt called it “the 50 most scenic miles in the world.”

Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody serves the entire area with commuter flights offered by major carriers year-round from Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah.

For 2019, this entrance opens May 3.

Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Cody Nite Rodeo

The Irma Hotel

Buffalo Bill State Park / Reservoir

 

snow covered mountains on road from Cody to Yellowstone

Road From Cody to Yellowstone

 

the bar at the Irma Hotel in Cody

Irma Hotel Bar, Cody

 

sign for Chief Joseph Scenic Highway

Highway 296 between Cody, Wyoming and Cooke City, Montana

Cooke City, Montana: Northeast Gate Entrance

For so little infrastructure, I’ve a lot to say about this Yellowstone gateway. Cooke City, Montana has done with its remote birthright what it could. First mining, then Yellowstone National Park. Originally named Shoo-Fly, the mining town was renamed in 1880 in an attempt to flatter a Northern Pacific Railroad executive into putting a stop there (apparently Shoo-Fly struck even the 1880 sensibilities as uncultured, and they dreamily desired to live in a city). In 1877 this country helped hide the Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his 800 or so band of hold-outs from General Howard’s 2,000 strong Cavalry for three months. Railroads don’t go where outnumbered bands of undersupplied men on horseback can elude the United States army for months.

I can see why the townspeople wanted a railroad in there.  Getting to Cooke City is a gutsy endeavor.  Highways 296 and 212 merge into a single road and from that junction the town is another 14 miles of nothing but bravery. And that’s assuming you’ve got any left.  Coming out of Red Lodge, Montana on 212, BearTooth Pass at 10,974 ft. fiercely protects this route.  Coming out of Cody, Wyoming on 296, Dead Indian Pass at 8,066 feet on the Chief Joseph Highway with views of the Absaroka’s Pilot and Index Peaks (11,708 & 11,313 feet) guards the other. Pretty sure the railroad executive never made it to the town hall meeting. 

Cooke City has a year-round population approximating 100. Three hundred cavort on the one paved street in the summer months of July and August. Even though it’s considered Yellowstone’s Northeast entrance gateway community, Silver Gate, a few miles past Cooke City, actually claims the ranger station.

Take note, if you’ve not entered the Park through this least-traveled gate, this small community and the drive to get there, epitomize Yellowstone’s wildness.

The Northeast Entrance remains open year round but that’s a mere technicality.  Since the Beartooth Highway (212) closes in September/October, you can only access the gate and Cooke City from within the park.  Tricky. 

 

Index Peak in the Asbsaroka Mountains

Pilot Peak, Absaroka Mountains

 

sign on the tree indicating snow levels

Snow Country’s Obvious Signs

 

historical stop, the general store in Cooke City Montana

Cooke City, Montana General Store

 

northeast entrance sign Yellowstone National Park

Northeast Entrance Yellowstone National Park

 

Gardiner, Montana: North Gate Entrance (the original gateway into YNP)

In 1872 when President Ulysses S Grant declared Yellowstone the nation’s first national park, Gardiner, Montana, 100 miles as the crow flies from what would become the park’s darling South entrance, was the only threshold.  Home to one of the oldest roads in Yellowstone, the Old Gardiner Road was used to ferry visitors into Mammoth Hot Springs from the Northern Pacific Railroad depot in Cinnabar, Montana. The original host to Yellowstone’s first visitors established as a 1880s stagecoach route, it’s still unpaved, and one of the few roads in the park that excludes RVs. 

President Chester A Arthur was the first U.S. president to visit Yellowstone. In 1883, he and his party led by General Sheridan, rode on horseback over the Old Gardiner Road to the park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs (Mammoth Hot Springs still reigns as Park headquarters).  

The Roosevelt Arch was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 24, 1903. 

The Gardiner entrance remains the only entrance that’s open year-round.

Fort Yellowstone and the beautiful travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs are just beyond this gate. 

 

the large stone entrance to Yellowstone in Gardner, Montana

Yellowstone’s North Entrance; Gardner, Montana. The Roosevelt arch was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on April 24, 1903.

 

travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs

Travertine Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs

 

baby buffalo with mother at Yellowstone's North Entrance

Spring at Yellowstone’s North Entrance

 

US post office Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Main Post Office, Mammoth Hot Springs

 

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Båstad Sweden

June 19, 2019 - Abroad

You don’t set out solo for Båstad Sweden because of a glossy travel brochure. 

“She was standing with the sun glowing round her head, the North Sea behind her. Dark glasses. It was the last photo of her. They looked for hints in the reflection of glass but there were none. She disappeared in that place. And really, who could blame her?” This was the only thing I wrote in the stumbled upon place of Båstad Sweden. Unless you’re a California transplant, in Oklahoma we don’t often use the term “existential crisis”.  But the one I’ve been experiencing crescendoed on that coast. 

Flying Lufthansa to Germany I knew of two things I planned to take from Båstad – inspiration from a writer’s workshop, and a weaving. I knew these things before I embarked on this first trip to Scandinavia.  But that first evening as the North Sea lapped at my toes in the dark while the bathhouse lights rose as if by queued stage production, strange tears came as my self came to an abrupt halt, so quiet and still I was aware of my held breath; a surprising and unexpected standstill as my senses locked onto the place.  

Two days later I’m enjoying a massage when Charlotte asks what I think about Båstad. She specifically uses the word energy. Charlotte is quiet and unobtrusive in her query but internally I’m disturbed.  Disturbed at her perceptiveness, disturbed at the notion of energy so pronounced that someone else has noticed, disturbed at my recollection of the evening when I collided with that energy, disturbed at my truthful response. I tell her it’s dark.  She chuckles and suggests “it’s strong”.  And then recommends I take a dip in the North Sea the next morning and spend the day at the bathhouse. So I did. 

A nude plunge into the open, frigid sea, a large warm outdoor caldron-I-mean-tub with steam fighting for air space with the glorious February sun, a plush white robe covering me inside near a fireplace with nothing but glass separating the indoor refinement from the prodigious contrasts on the other side… repeat.  The existential crisis didn’t end, but I learned a lot that day about dark energy vs strong energy.  Thank you Lotta. 

People travel for a lot of reasons.  Yes I go to see, but mostly I pursue a discovery of place that leaves a mark as indelible as the tattoo I continually threaten. I want a place to unexpectedly hurt. In all the best ways. 

North Sea bathhouse

Energy

North Sea bathhouse in the morning

Bathhouse på morgonen

 
a map of Båstad Sweden

Båstad Sweden, Earth

Swedish flag flying over coast of North Sea

Swedish Coast of North Sea

Black and White photo of Båstad Sweden after dark

First night walk about town

 
Båstad and the North Sea from a restaurant window at the blue hour

Båstad and the North Sea from a restaurant window

 

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A Yellow, Rubber Duck

June 3, 2019 - Abroad

It’s a yellow, rubber duck.  A simple toy with hopefully fond memories from a happy childhood. But like a daisy chain necklace, a rubber duck isn’t as simple as first it appears.  

A friend’s partner recently passed away and while the friend and I haven’t been close since high school, we’re both somewhat aware of the path of each other’s life.  Her’s has been difficult, and my heart aches for what she’s now going through.  As I laid in bed last night thinking about her, a memory of innocent times popped in for a visit.  We made daisy chain necklaces.  It was a favorite adornment of ours and it bugs the hell out of me because I can’t recall how to connect the last stem to the first stem to make it hold together round our necks for an afternoon of play (I wonder if she does?).

I lost sleep thinking about it and the problem of that crucial last step became tangled in the heartache I feel for her loss. I cried for her.  And part of me cried because I couldn’t remember how to connect the ends of those stupid necklaces – those things around our necks that looked like shit the next day but bound together our youthful years. The memory of the joyous simplicity of those daisy chain necklaces suddenly became one of pathos. And complexity.  

My friend and I spent a lot of time together, but as farm kids, we spent a lot of time on our own as well.  My favorite toys were used for imagined travel.  A Viewmaster.  A fortune teller of folded paper with crayon dreams. A Magic 8 Ball, of which one has always, and will always, sit on my desk. These simple toys were magnificent travel tools in the hands of my imagination.  And so it was from this perspective of appreciation for simple toys that I approached the yellow, rubber duck during a recent solo journey. 

I don’t recall playing with a rubber duck in the bathtub.  Too young I guess. But this rubber duck, while possibly and superficially at home in a small body of water, is for grown ups — grown ups who day dream a lot about travel. From the first time I read about this thing, this travel trophy, this simple, rubber duck that has nothing to do with bathtub playtime, I wanted one.  My Magic 8 Ball and the paper fortune teller and the Viewmaster needed a new, deceptively naive, travel toy.  

They say the journey is all that matters. As I think about my friend, mostly I say that’s a BS lie.   But this time, on this journey, they were right.  

 

The yellow, rubber duck given to Lufthansa's First Class Passengers at their First Class Terminal/Lounge in Frankfurt, Germany

Not-so-simple, yellow, rubber duck

First class rose and early refreshments

On the way for the rubber duck

a reflection in the plane window

Everything At Once

caviar with all the accruements, and no skimping either

the rubber duck better be worth this

Lufthansa's first class cheese course

no words left

Lufthansa's first class breakfast course

Breakfast

the Porsche that provided transfer

The Transfer

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Red Lodge, Montana

May 20, 2019 - Montana

Travel to Red Lodge takes homework. 

Red Lodge attracted and held my attention from the first failed attempt to visit.  Heading there on the Beartooth Highway from Cooke City, Beartooth pass had closed for the winter on that first attempt. It was October, which in Oklahoma is far, far away from winter. It’s also a long distance from Oklahoma, so the disappointment to have gotten oh-so-close was intense. A challenge to drive there? Historic hotel?  Missed first attempt? Yes, please.

As a result, the 2nd attempt was not off the cuff. Which translated to a plane ticket, a rental car, a hotel reservation, and yes damn it, homework. The Pass, having been the road block on the initial trip to the area, was my main destination; something to be conquered. But Red Lodge’s ironic-for-a-resort colloquial atmosphere was so personal that for the first time I walked into an art gallery as if an avid and resourced collector.  Then, had the ease and confidence to ask for layaway. The allure of the Pass faded as I ate and drank, stared at the sparkle of stars in the night sky, and strode confidently into more art galleries.

It’s tempting to compare Red Lodge with my first love, Jackson, Wyoming.  The more accurate comparison is to contrast the two. As I walked the streets, the light and shadows combined in a way that defied gravity and I felt unencumbered and lighter by 20 pounds. It was easy to be in the moment; to be mindful of sounds and scents and images; to be blissfully unaware of yourself and even more liberating, of those around you. Jackson is western kitsch wrapped in high-end furs. Red Lodge is laid-back in a genuinely friendly way that Jackson lacks, and emotionally evocative as only postcard perfect mountain ranges or blissfully pristine beaches, command.  

After 4 days of unplanned, spontaneous wandering, I went to Babcock & Miles and said, “I’ve come to see the Pass.”  They obliged with a picnic basket piled with adventure worthy food and wine – the perfect reward for a destination requiring some homework.

 

Red Lodge's Beartooth Pass at 10947 ft Elevation

Beartooth Pass

 

Snow Plows Clear 40 ft drifts on Beartooth Highway

Billings Gazette

 

40 foot drifts accumulate in Red Lodge's heavy snow fall winters

Snow Sideboards

Red Lodge Culinary Adventures, Mountain Style

Red Lodge’s Babcock and Miles

An assortment of my Red Lodge picnic by Babcock and Miles

Great Food and a Map = Adventure

 

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The Grand Climb

 

Tammie DooleyAbout SRT... I’m a traveler, writer and photographer for whom the open road frequently summons. Adventurous solo road trips are a staple for me, and a curiosity. So I created this website to share them and inspire you to step out and give them a try. Welcome!

A soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone – Wolfgang Von Goethe

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