29 July 2011

If my memory serves me correctly....

After the last update, it may seem that Grand Teton and Yellowstone were unimpressive, and ruined by mosquitoes. This isn't actually the case, it just so happened that when I sat down to write an update about them, my view was dominated by the aforementioned lumps, and I was a little preoccupied with scratching my itches (I wonder if any strangers think I might have fleas). Both parks did impress us with their scenery and easily accessible wildlife (more about that soon, we promise).

Grand Teton National Park

Yellowstone National Park

A little story on Yellowstone before I go. Brad has been excitedly remembering his childhood Yellowstone experience since we arrived, but couldn't remember the route his family took to get here on their '80s American trip. So, he did what every smart bloke would do, and asked his mum. At which point we both found out, Brad hasn't been to Yellowstone before.

16 July 2011

Our least favourite wildlife encounter

From where I sit right now my right leg looks deformed, midway between my knee and foot, off to the outside of my shin, is a lump which has moved from golf ball sized to approaching tennis ball. There's a similar lump forming on my left leg, just below the tendon at the back of my knee. Apparently we shouldn't have complained about the mosquitoes on the descent from Mount Elbert – they've sent their friends in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks to pay us a (not so) little visit. These ones haven't played nicely either, biting in all the irritating places, my lip, between my fingers, my toes, the arches of my feet, my Achilles tendon, as well as all accessible skin, and some not (apparently these guys can bite through t-shirts). I'm covered in bites to the point where I might be scaring small children, Brad has about five though you wouldn't know it to hear how much he hates them. Gil has fly screens, but apparently these aren't entirely mosquito proof. They do keep out the lion's share, but enough to make life irritating somehow get through, we think via the air-conditioner in the roof – moths to arrive via this entrance point. This has seen the arrival of two games, flicking at the window screen so that the 30 on the outside fall off, and the more annoying, Brad getting angry and slapping madly at 3am.

Yesterday I concluded it was time to turn off the laptop when I Googled “mosquito borne diseases in North America”. But if I am ever to get one, it won't be in some tropical third world country, it'll be here.

Should we be doing a bit more planning?

Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park are very close together, essentially you exit one and enter the other. This should have meant moving from one into the other, for a week of more of national park fun. Unfortunately, during another moment of planning failure, we reached the end of our visit to Grand Teton with insufficient fresh fruit and vegetables for any time in Yellowstone. When I say insufficient, I don't mean we were short a few things, we literally had a plum, a potato and a rather sorry looking stalk of celery. Yum! So we detoured via Yellowstone (a detour which resulted in a roadside sighting of another piece of big ticket wildlife) to the nearest town with a hope of having a supermarket, Cody, Wyoming. Cody's slogan is “Cody is rodeo”, so what else were we to do, but attend the night rodeo which runs every night for about three months, something they're also quite proud of. Somewhat to our surprise it was more enjoyable than expected, and whilst some of the events (namely steer roping) seemed cruel, I suspect these are same ones that actually occur in “cowboy real life”.

We managed to secure ourselves seats above the cowboy pen/mounting yard/whatever it's called, so had an excellent view of the dynamics and events behind the scenes as well. Entertaining event of the night went to “invite every child under twelve into the arena, line the 40 plus kids up across it, then let three calves with ribbons tied to their tails loose” with a prize for those who obtained a ribbon. Hilarious when some of the kids were tripping over just getting into the arena.

15 July 2011

My first 4th of July as an American Citizen

Almost immediately after crossing the border into Wyoming, we came across fireworks stores. This seems mainly because it's legal to sell “bigger” fireworks to the general public in Wyoming year round, hence residents of nearby states flock here, only to be picked off by under cover cops as they cross back to their own state. Almost immediately after crossing the border into Wyoming, I realised we'd turned off the road and where headed to one such store. Brad excitedly browsed the store, in awe of some bigger than a case of beer. I suggested sparklers were sufficient, and pondered whether our travel insurance covered firework related injuries, whilst unwelcome images of Brad with a bloody stump where a hand had been filled my mind.

We'd initially planned to spend July 4 in Casper, Wyoming. The word “planned” should be used loosely, as this wasn't exactly a plan into which much thought or time had been spent, more a decision to “go somewhere within a reasonable driving distance that might have something interesting to see”. On arrival in Casper the day before, we realised a little more prior planning might have been required. Casper might be an oil town (we're not sure), and at 5pm on a Sunday had an eerie almost ghost town feeling to it. We saw one couple the entire time we searched for a place to spend the night, and whilst they didn't fit the movie image of zombie, they might have been.

Having seen enough (sorry Casper) we quickly headed off to Lander early the next morning, with the promise of a parade and evening fireworks display, plus no restrictions on Brad letting off his own, and arrived just in time to see the start of the parade. It was as expected from a small town, with one distinct absence – not once was the national anthem played.
After the parade we secured ourselves a camp site on a hill over looking the town which promised a great view of their fireworks display, then found ourselves somewhat at a loss for what to do. It was at this point we realised we'd have spent the day with family or friends or both if we had any here, and a touch of homesickness set in. After this realisation we spent the rest of the day having a few quiet drinks and playing enthusiastic games of Spit, a card game which involves no saliva but a fair amount of speed and table slapping.

As soon as the sun hinted that it might be going down, the town fireworks display started. By town, I mean the entire population began setting off their personal cache and very soon after a gunpowder haze settled in. Brad and I set ourselves up at the camp ground perimeter overlooking the town equipped with chairs, a rug and hot chocolate and watched for the next few hours, until Brad decided it was time to head to the nearest parking lot and set off his own small stash.

The fireworks were still going when we went to bed at midnight.

10 July 2011

Colorado has a thing for Pearl Jam

Mount Elbert left me headachey with somewhat bloody nose (also continuing, like my leg damage over a week later … should I see a doctor?) and both of us sore and a little hesitant about hiking ever again. So we decided a city day or two was in order and headed to Denver. We'd asked several people from Denver what we should do there, and the general response was more what could done within a day trip of Denver, so we didn't hold much hope. We tried fruitlessly to find second hand bikes, and decided after a full day of trying to give up for now. We did leave Denver however with a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 (for those of you not up with the latest technology, it's basically an iPad2 for the man who is anti-Apple, but superior (according to Brad). An exact quote of Brad's words as he took it out of the box: It's like the best piece of gadgetry I've seen in my life! Surprisingly I am not yet widowed by it. We also picked up a few craft supplies (for me of course), a nifty camera bag (the camera outgrew the old one) which makes me look like a serious hiker and a couple of clothing items (look out for new additions to Brad's t-shirt collection). Having found that at this point in time we are far happier out of cities and in the wilderness we started our drive to Rocky Mountain National Park.
We arrived in Boulder in the late afternoon when our radio was promptly taken over with the broadcast of a warning of a thunderstorm complete with winds in excess 125 kms which had already caused damage in other towns. Driving towards/into said storm in Gil (isolated wind gusts alone can be interesting) was not appealing and so we called it a day and weathered the edge of the storm with grocery shopping followed by a VERY good Vietnamese meal (how we miss the food at home).

Rocky Mountain National Park itself pretty, and as crowded with family groups as you would expect on a holiday weekend. It also seemed to be being visited by a lot of whiny people, with grouchy family dynamics. After some hesitation we overcame our new dread of hiking and the thought of trail mix making us feel ill, and completed a couple of hikes. Somewhere along the way, it seems that any walk less that 10km has become short.

A few random bits of Colorado worth a mention before we move onto Wyoming:
Telluride, a small ski town a few hours from Denver, was the first town I can imagine living in, complete with gorgeous houses... for sale. This may have been helped by the glorious weather, or a tasty lunch, but Brad pointed out there'd be six months of snow, and I doubt I could cope with that, though maybe with a pair of skis..... Leaving Telluride we travelled along Interstate 70, an interesting road for us for two reasons:
1) There were large pull outs to the side of the road forbidding parking but allowing a 30 minute stop to “chain up”
2) There were more semi-trailers on the side of the road leaking large amounts of fluid, with the bonnets open or receiving roadside assistance than actually on the road itself. Gil proved to be mechanically superior and made it up without event.
Somewhere in Colorado, we started seeing the first of what we've termed “crazy cyclists”, cyclists (obviously) with a fair amount of gear in tow – some quite literally have trailers – slogging up and down the mountains seems to be the done thing in these parts. We did meet a guy cycling from New York to San Franciso, after 35 days straight he'd made it to Telluride and was having a rest. His clothes looked as if he wasn't lying about how long he'd spent on the road.

Also, Colorado has a love for Pearl Jam. We haven't heard Jeremy played on the radio so much since the '90s. Colorado also seems to be also holding a candle for Alanis Morrisette and Hootie and the Blowfish. And before you explain this occurrence by our listening to a classics or alternate radio station, indeed we were not.

Finally, we saw a “big ticket” piece of wildlife, but you'll have to wait for our animal update to find out who it was.

06 July 2011

We don't know what the highest peak in the US is, but it's doubtful we'll stand on the top of it

Colorado has a number of mountains more than 14,000 feet in elevation, affectionately known as Fourteeners, so what else were we to do, but climb one of them. We probably didn't need to choose the highest of Colorado's peaks, Mount Elbert, to be our Fourteener, as it also happens to be the second highest peak in the United States, although by only about 60 feet (roughly 18 metres, we climbed ladders taller than that at Mesa Verde). So the day after our rafting trip, with slightly sore backs and arms, we set off on what had been described as a 7 hour fairly easy hike. Whoever wrote that description is prone to exaggeration or flat out lied. And to the person (maybe the same) who decided that switchbacks would add unnecessary length, and that going up was an entirely sensible idea – our legs and lungs disagree.

Fairly early into the hike, I told Brad I didn't think I would make it, a phrase I would repeat at regular intervals throughout the rest of the upward journey. I'll be the first to admit it wasn't my finest hour, and I thought I would have to withdraw my earlier claim to new found fitness and keeping up with Brad.

It was part way through the gravelly rock layer (we'd already passed through Aspens, evergreens and a grassy-ish layer) things started to seem as though I was hardly able to walk ten steps before stopping to rest again. In an attempt to prove to myself I was making progress, I started counting my steps (and I was making progress, about 200 steps each time). After several rounds of this we came across snow covering the path with no foreseeable way around. It looked shallow and firm enough to cross, and it was, until we were nearly midway and Brad went down thigh deep. Several more such steps later I thought I'd found firmer snow and set out on my own path, only to go down thigh deep too. Did I mention we were both wearing shorts? Over a week later, my legs still bear the cuts and bruises from the snow. Before too long, headaches set in, and the hike began to get a little soul destroying. The angle we were approaching the summit from made it look as though other peaks were higher and we still had a long way to go. As well, it looked as that, if in fact the closest peak was the highest, the actual summit would be unreachable due to snow and we would come so close, only to fall short.

The peak was in fact the nearest one, and not unreachable and after almost exactly six hours we made it to the 14,440 foot (4401 metre) high summit. Snowy peaks (all lower than us) stretched far on all sides, but sadly the sense of achievement and being on top of the world (or perhaps just Colorado) was overcome by our pounding headaches and the knowledge we still had a long trip back down.

After a very late lunch and a few photos, we started our decent, which was as tough on our knees and ankles as the climb had been on our calves and thighs, though without the need for frequent rest stops. The snow drift was no kinder to us either despite our approaching it from a different angle. It was however kinder to the only other group we saw on the hike, half a dozen teenagers who we'd leap frogged most of the way up. We felt old and boring as they fearlessly slid down on their stomachs.

On our upwards journey, we'd encountered a particularly thick patch of mosquitoes, this was nothing compared to what we encountered on our return when we came to the same section at precisely mosquito-o'clock. We could feel the tiny guys whacking into us, rather than landing, so thick were they in the air. They must've known the advantage they held as they were slow moving enough for multiples to be squished with one hand with little effort. Brad got slight revenge by swallowing several and attempted to prevent landings by flailing his arms. From where I walked he looked liked a marionette with a drunk puppeteer. I barely had the energy to put one foot in front of the other let alone swipe mosquitoes, so resorted to putting on my polar fleece. Eventually we arrived home at around 6:30pm and after having panadol and asprin (yes, both), somehow made it promptly into bed, before any soreness set in. I vaguely recall being woken several hours later by Brad loudly munching on crackers, and being given pureed fruit and more panadol, but this may have been a dream.

Some stats just for the achievement file:

Total hiking time: 10 hours

Overall elevation gain: 4890 feet/1490 metres (this doesn't take into account that we had some downhill bits that had to be climbed again)

Total distance: this is in debate, according the internet it's just over 9kms each way, we started a little ahead of the trailhead by setting out from our camp site. Brad was tracking our hike on his phone and we still had a fair way to go on the upwards journey when the battery died. At last check we were at 9.81kms. Therefore we estimate the round trip to be approx more than 20kms.

Post hike nap: 14 hours

Out of dust and into water

When we met the guide for our white water rafting trip on the Arkansas River, (Corey, wearing a red and silver glittery helmet as you do) and the others in the raft, 4 Denver guys most likely not yet 21, we should have know there'd be an attempt to capsize the raft at least once. The rafting itself was quite easy due to the high water level from snow melt. This meant nearly all of the rapids presented no risk of leaving the raft and very little actual paddling was required (nothing like the excitement of the rafting trips we'd both been on as teenagers). We stayed in through the first serious rapid of the day, despite our raft being swamped and me copping the shoulder of the guy in front to my cheekbone (to our surprise, this did NOT result in a black eye). There was talk through out the trip of making a deliberate attempt to flip the raft in our second last, and most serious rapid. When we got to it the other rafts on our trip took a line to the side of the main part.... Corey took us right down the middle, and as expected everyone except him promptly left the raft. I'm proud to say I watched the other five go out, before letting go when I thought the raft was flipping (it actually didn't). In my brief time in the water I successfully lost a contact lens and swallowed nearly as much water as the time we went scuba diving in Thailand. Brad however was underwater for longer than the rest of us, and surfaced looking somewhat like a drowned rodent moving swiftly away from our raft before he was grabbed by another. We're definitely planning more water adventures on this trip, hopefully with more exciting rapids.

No, we didn't magically tele-port from Zebra Canyon to mid-way through Colorado, along the way we visited the very aptly but not very creatively, named Arches National Park, so called for the rock arches which are continually forming,

and Mesa Verde, a series of ancient villages built high into cliffs.
Both unique places, better served by pictures than words, and feeling more crowded with tourists than anywhere else we've been so far. We also discovered a few more things that had shaken loose on that dirt road, of note the mount holding our house battery, resulting in the connector eventually snapping – something we only became aware of when suddenly we no longer had power. Luckily Brad is even handier than I realised and impressed me with his ability to attach a new connector thingy to the wire, then the next day convince a guy at a welding supply shop to attach a new mounting bracket.

Definitely no more dirt road adventures for Gil.