America the Beautiful: Part 2
Updated: Dec 26, 2021
Medicine Bow Peak, WY
After a week of driving and camping, the story picks up as Bella and I had just left the Black Hills of South Dakota and are finally breaking into the exciting and rugged terrain of the north western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Montana and Idaho!
NIGHT 9: Grayrocks Reservoir, WY
Thursday, September 17, 2020
AM temp: 49º — Elevation: 4419 ft
A long day of traveling left us tired and ready to pull off for the night. The cold and bugs were too intense to venture outside for very long, but we did manage a brief stroll along the reservoir's edge to the pit toilets and back. We sat in the cab of the truck and made tomato sandwiches and ate sun chips before crawling into the back. I think I was asleep in twenty minutes or less. In the early dawn, I had heard two groups of coyotes calling out to each other from across the water. Their shrill sounds were interlaced with the comically humorous fish plops and screeching gulls.
NIGHT 10/11: Saratoga Campgrounds, WY
Fri-Sat, September 18-19, 2020
AM temp: 46º — Elevation: 6700 ft
Deep within the heart of the Medicine Bow National Forest, a group of stopped motorists alongside the road dubbed, "Snowy Pass," caught my attention. I asked Bella to turn back around as I had seen the heads of two giant moose in the tall grass near the tree line. Sure enough, there they were in full splendor. Not only them, but three others were walking around with their tall, stiff legs.
After another long day of driving, we pulled into the Saratoga mineral hot springs. It was a developed spring, with a pool and changing rooms, but the hot springs themselves were still relatively natural in their design. The basin was natural earth, a soft silty gray concoction and outside the property, the North Platte River was fed by a few thermal springs as well. We pulled ourselves out of the hot sulfurous water and into the cool, gently flowing river to enjoy the alarming reaction from a near fifty-degree cold water plunge. We laid alongside the river's bank in a shallow pool of water that bellowed out warmly.
Some kids were throwing rocks at a presumed rattlesnake made up as a prank to scare the other kids and we walked across the bridge to inspect the scene ourselves. No snakes that we could find, but a local did clue us in to a secretive spring that held the mineral-rich mud. Here we did see a little snake in the underbrush that we decided to keep information of to ourselves. Ignoring the harmless snake, we sat down in our private sanctuary and started spreading the mud on our skin. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it, but afterwards our skin had never felt softer.
Returning back through town, the campground at Saratoga lake was active, filled mostly with RV campers, but a long spread-out loop held plenty of available spaces below their upper perches. Cattails lined the shore and gulls circled overhead.
The next day, returning to the Snowy Pass where the moose had been congregating, we crossed over Wyoming’s highest elevation road reaching 10,000 feet as it cuts between the upper and lower Medicine Bow Range. As we exited the vehicle and looked back towards the southern half of the range, we could see a brand new wildfire had taken off and was sending plumes of smoke into the air rapidly.
INFORMATION ON THE MULLEN FIRE
The smoke was becoming quite intense and blocked out the entire mountain range off in the distance. We’d heard from southbound travelers coming from Yellowstone that fires in that area was disturbing visibility and even saw a notice from the park stating that they would be closing the park due to smoke for the upcoming weekend. We were still about four to five days out from making it there, but it was reason enough to start to consider our options.
The hike was incredible. We pounded footstep after footstep for ten miles to reach a summit height of 12,000 feet. The terrain shifted with the sloping topography and getting to the top meant scrambling up and over large, spaced out boulders. There seated at the peak were the other ones who had completed it and all eyes and were fixed on the fire. I could tell it was bad simply from the attention they gave it. Even the dogs would glance over, sensing, likely smelling, the burning inferno.
We descended back down, passing other climbers going the opposite direction, some motoring through the passage as if they were trying to set a timed record, others struggling with the steep, craggy portions. We reached the base and walked through beautifully forested sections that gave as a clear look at the mountain we had just climbed and set before it was the most magnificent lake. It was all starting to make sense why the long journey to reach here had taken place. Now we were in the thick of it!
After a big hike, our stomachs were aching for a big meal. So we coasted back down the mountain pass returning once again to the town of Saratoga. We tried a pizza joint, but with one old man making the pies and three large parties ahead of us, the hostess lady was quite honest we’d be waiting for some time. Not to mention a 16” pizza cost $22. So, over to the next best carb-centric spot: Bella’s Bistro.
Bella's had mostly Italian fare, and everything on the menu read phenomenal. A long list of shareable sides ranging from sautéed spinach with garlic to mushroom caps enticed our eyes and stomachs. We decided on the mushrooms which were braised in a chianti sauce and topped with a light Italian cheese. They brought us focaccia bread with olive oil and balsamic while we enjoyed a local amber ale and a dirty martini. We were celebrating the big high of climbing a most magnificent peak. It’s also quite rewarding to have a night out after spending so many consecutive nights inside the shell of a tiny pickup, cooking all of your meals over a gas stove on the tailgate.
This place was perfect and lighting up our palettes in such a rewarding way. I decided on a linguine that had a light lemon and garlic olive oil with a white wine sauce. It was tossed with a substantial amount of tomatoes, spinach, capers, green olives and fantastically large slices of garlic. Bella had been craving a fresh salad and their house salad with long slices of cucumbers and carrots was quite a refreshing post-hike meal.
We couldn’t stop there, though. A perfectly crafted piece of tiramisu and a shot of cafe XO with a glass of sambuca put us into another dimension for being catered to and consuming a meal that would be hard to forget. Likely the highlight meal of our trip, aside from all the fantastic camp cooked meals we’ve created.
NIGHT 12/13: Echo Park, Dinosaur N. Monument, CO
Sun-Mon, September 20-21, 2020
AM temp: 48º — Elevation: 5102 ft
The long stretches of highway passed through desolate desert hills that grew to become slightly taller hills. Aside from ourselves, only the occasional traveler passed through. The rugged terrain started to rapidly rise up into high and more chiseled formations despite being still covered by the desert sage and juniper bushes. We spent the time catching up on writing and listening to music.
The road into Dinosaur National Monument was impressive. We winded in for a dozen miles, dropping down over two thousand feet until we reached the canyon floor and entered into a dizzying landscape. The canyon wall stretched over us by at least six or seven hundred feet while the confluence of the Green and Yampa river converged around the long-sliced mediator dubbed, Steamboat Rock.
After a slow start with coffee and chatting with other campers, we ventured up the road on foot towards a petroglyph site. We first visited the Whispering Cave which requires you to shimmy sideways into a crack in the rock that is capped on both sides and gets progressively narrower the further in you go. We slid in shoulder to shoulder with our backs and faces nearly touching the walls going about fifty yards until it became too tight to go any further.
Over at the petroglyph site we were struggling to see the markings until we stretched our necks up thirty-five feet from where we were standing. The markings were unlike any of the one's I’ve seen before, but I was certain this site had to be in the path of the nomadic tribes that visited the four corners region. This one was accredited to the “Freemonts” group that visited the area in the late 13th century. The markings were also done in a manner I’d not seen before: a stipple dot pattern accented by large wedge shapes. The iconography, however, was very similar to the Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs I'd found in New Mexico.
We walked up the road a bit and started to climb on the rocks and venturing off trail. I kept searching for game trails and as we were climbing back down, I spotted a skull tucked into the bushes. It was so brittle, the desert air taking its toll. A few steps further into a clearing, we came to a kill site where the bones of two mule deer were scattered all over. The largest of these, the leg bones, were so brittle I could smash them into pieces and we looked inside at the cobwebby insides.
I decided to break off trail further and start following game trails which ran alongside the tall, towering rock face. Within minutes, after following these signs of animal presence, we came to yet another mule deer kill site. I imagined this was mountain lion territory, even going so far as to have a nightmare of one leaping out at me from the tall grass and causing me to awake with a jolt.
I ask that you hit pause or return after reading the next four campsites to sit down and enjoy the scenery as it comes to life through this second installment in the America the Beautiful video series.
TURN TOWARDS THE NORTH
Night 14: Uinta National Forest, UT
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
AM temp: 45° — Elevation 8700 ft
Passing through Salt Lake City, I decided I wanted to get the oil changed before we ventured back into the far remote reaches, well beyond civilization. By the end of the day we had landed in a secluded region of the Uinta National Forest, surrounded by freshly yellowing Aspen trees. There were mule deer roaming all over this area and hunters were in full effect with their permits ready to snag whatever they could.
In the foggy morning hours I set up a blind hoping to catch some wildlife activity, but nothing came across our path. I think we may have either been too noisy, too late or perhaps the paths were too trampled for them to take the chance.
Night 15: Middle Fork Campsite, UT
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
AM temp: 43º — Elevation: 5084 ft
Today I felt like a real boondocker (off-grid, remote traveler) trimming my beard in the side mirror of the tacoma. We were camped at an open lot that was free to overnight in and there were plenty of campers, tent goers and car sleepers spread out across the dusty, flat sprawl. It was bordered by big, open hills that gave rise to a lot of horse trailers coming to make use of the area for its extensive trails.
At sunset, we watched James Peak within the Wasatch Range fade to a light blue haze, while long, sinewy streaks of pink segmented the orange sky. It was our best sunset of the trip thus far and certainly the right time of year to be here.
We pulled in on the far side of the lot near the trail heads and horse stalls. As the sky illuminated, Bella set up the camp chairs and I cooked in the cast iron skillet some jalapeño cheddar veggie brats and sautéed peppers and onions to layer on top. As they cooked, I put in two halves of corn and whipped up a mayonnaise cotija cheese topping. It was one of our heartiest, most flavorful meals.
Oddly enough, it took some real searching to find a single unhusked ear of corn in a grocer, despite driving endlessly through fields of it for three straight days. That corn we saw, though, goes right into the guts of cows, chickens and other livestock feeds where nearly half of all available farm land is used for this purpose. For us to find an ear of corn that tasted better than gun ammunition, required quite a lot of hunting.
Night 16: Hells Half Acre, ID
Thursday, September 24, 2020
Morning temp: 47º — Wind speed: 20
Crossing yet another state line and continuing the final push north, we ended up in an area outside Idaho Falls called, Hell’s Half Acre. It was a part of the 52 mile Great Rift Valley and held massive lava fields. We hiked around a bit, clambering along overtop these rugged, fractured basaltic rocks and even came across a very perturbed Night snake. It was long and brown with darker, brownish-red oval signatures along its back.
Once back at camp, I seasoned up potatoes cut into sticks and made tomato sandwiches. We had fun-filled laughter in the truck shell swapping stories and telling jokes to one another. One in particular that had me in stitches was the time Bella and her mom went out into the cemetery behind where they lived to spook her older sister and her friends. They were there hanging out playing with an ouija board, and as mom and daughter snuck in, hiding behind gravestones, cracked sticks together making noises and sent the kids running home with a freight in them like no other.
The next day we traveled up to the Craters of the Moon National Monument and hiked around its similar lava-filled attractions. The wind here was something fierce, blasting down at 40 mph and nearly knocking us off our feet as we scrambled across the loose, crumbly cinder rocks that encircled the great rift valley. The rift extends 52 miles through the Columbia Plateau in Southern Idaho. Spread all along it are volcanic lava fields and chains of cinder volcanoes. Dotted along the hills are the multitudes of sagebrush. The marveling fact about this area is that it was active only as recent as 2000 years ago. Natives in the area would have been witnessing the volcanic flow as it spread through the 890 square mile area, sometimes at speeds of 30 mph. The oldest volcano in the area is only 15,000 years old, which in geological terms, is basically the present day. Hard to believe such an active area existed in the continental US.
Night 17: Wolf Flats, Idaho
Friday, September 25, 2020
Morning temp: 47º — Winds: 20-30 mph
We ended up bothering some employee at a municipal recreation center to let us use their facilities. I asked if there were showers for use and he said there were, along with a basketball court and a weight room, but yes in the bathrooms were showers. I said great and we went back outside to pull the truck around closer and brought in all of our stuff. He looks at us the second time and says, you know there is a fee, but he asked if we were just passing through. I explained we were camping and traveling around the country and he allowed us to use it for free.
Wolf Flats was a long road of pull-off spots with two that hosted dry toilets. We selected the first one and picked a spot near to the Snake River and restrooms. All around were broken limbs from the surging winds. I was genuinely concerned about more coming down through the night on top of us.
We escaped the area no problems, but in the morning I had to stop to admire the flowing rapids of the Snake River. It was really pumping! Motorless drift boats bobbed along the eddies near the high cliff banks and I was infinitely perplexed for how a boat with only a set of wooden oars could be out there in those conditions. I later got into researching the design and built of these boats and their intended purpose is simply to drift. A truck trailers the boat up to the put-in point and then parks downstream, with a second vehicle coming back up to begin the journey.