July 7, 2005. Alvord Desert, Oregon.
Luckily, I hadn’t consumed too much tequila the previous night—after all, the bottle lying near me still had some left in it. I lay awake in the tent, wondering how Jim could be sleeping so soundly. By 7:00, the unhindered desert sun had already turned the tent into a sauna. I phlegmatically opened the window flaps and fell back asleep. 7:30, sweating profusely, I dragged myself along the tent floor, grappled with the zipper, propped myself upright, removed the heat-trapping tarp, and sprawled once again ontop of my sleeping bag. 7:45, I slithered the entire 5-feet to unzip the tent door and fell asleep with half of my body outside. 7:55, I crawled outside of the tent, dragging my sleeping pad with me, deciding that a few more minutes of sleep merited the risk of wayward scorpions. Besides, given the increasingly unbearable heat inside of the tent, I knew that Jim would be awake in no more than a few minutes. 10:00, Jim emerged from the tent, freshly rejuvenated and ready to hit the sky.
On the high desert plains just beyond the edge of the barren Alvord Desert, we spotted a herd of wild horses running in the scrub 500 feet below our plane. Jim turned the plane around and swooped low overhead for a better view. The horses scattered in several directions with a colt sticking close by its mother’s side.
2000-lb balsawood planes tend to be a bit more prone to non-forward motion than 747’s. With the morning’s capricious winds and thermals, we had moved 1 foot in some random direction for each foot that we traveled forward. By the time we’d landed for breakfast in Boise, Idaho, I was overdue for a stationary environment. Still, even on the ground, everything seemed to continue moving. I pointed my fork at the evasive omelet that mocked my aim and repeatedly stabbed at the moving target. Circumspectly eyeing my animated and cunning prey, I feigned a stab to the right but I actually went left. Success! I had outsmarted it! I impaled my tormentor and watched with satisfaction as cheese oozed from its wound. I just barely contained my victory celebration and mustered all of my modesty to keep from triumphantly standing in my seat and thrusting my fists into the air.
At 11,000 feet, our plane laboriously climbed over a remote mountain pass somewhere in eastern Idaho. Awesome spires of cottonball clouds presented photogenic obstacles to a smooth flight. While my camera was “lovin’ it,” I wasn’t. Already nauseated from the engine fumes in the cabin, I felt queasy as yet another thermal unexpectedly launched us 40 feet higher. The clouds grew, as did the winds and my nausea. The plane tossed about like a champagne cork in a hot spa. Both awestruck and terrified by the magnificence surrounding us, I clenched my camera with one hand and, with the other, an interior strut (aka “oh shit” handle). Jim too held onto a strut with his free hand, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. I had no doubt that he could confidently fly through a tornado, merrily enjoying the spinning sensation.
I cautiously leaned on the door and peered out the window to the valley several thousand feet below. A mischievous gust jolted the plane and my door popped ajar to leave me gawking at the ground with nothing between us, save 2000 feet of air. Only the 100 mph wind kept the door from opening fully. I tightened my seatbelt and gave thanks for having relieved myself BEFORE the flight. Without warning, the plane dropped 50 feet. I snapped silently. “Oh shit, what are we doing up here? This isn’t natural! We’re suspended thousands of feet in the air in 2197.43 pounds of random materials without any strings! WITHOUT ANY STRINGS!!! That’s not right! Agghhh, get me out of here!” I renounced atheism and prayed to a God that had never before inspired me. Fortunately, my nausea kept me subdued externally. Feebly tapping Jim on the shoulder, I pointed my index finger at my open mouth. Shocked at my request for a receptacle, he frantically turned around and with his one free hand began tossing aside sleeping bags, fishing rods, a boom box, and a half-full bottle of tequila to find a large cooking pot he placed in my lap. I hovered over my pot, on the verge of puking yet inspired by towering thunderclouds as we entered Montana. We hit a rainstorm and the plane lurched. I juggled my puke pot and camera as I tried to capture the dazzling lightning display over Yellowstone. Majesty triumphed over nausea and I felt blessed to be witnessing such an amazing drama.
Jim had warned me that we would run out of fuel; at least in the first of our two tanks… hopefully, not the second. The timing of this noteworthy event was based largely on guess work. The problem was that the fuel gauge didn’t exactly work; the telltale stutter of the prop proved a more exact measure. Jim nonchalantly flipped a switch to engage the second fuel tank and the prop resumed its duty.
Thankfully on the ground in Bozeman, Montana, I marveled at Jim’s brother’s vocabulary. Never before had I heard f*ck employed so generously. I heretofore had not realized the bountiful opportunities for this surprisingly versatile word. The few neglected sentences that were shortchanged its presence had to settle for less lofty expletives. None-the-less, Jim’s relatives were good-hearted, hospitable folk. We sucked down Coronas as a protracted sunset illuminated enormous magenta, anvil-shaped clouds in aptly named Big Sky country.
July 8, 2005. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
On this day, I was glad to be traveling by car, rather than airplane. Arising at 6:30, we had beaten the crowds to Yellowstone’s Boiling River. The sign at the trailhead to the natural hotspring explained that the fragile ecosystem was endangered by human activity. While swimming was allowed at the confluence of the ice-cold river and scalding thermal spring, certain items and activities were prohibited to “prevent further degradation of the area,” from erosion, pollution, and the like. The environmentally-minded rules mandated, “no bicycles, no pets, no food or drink, no camping, no nudity, no soap.” OK, one of these threats is not like the others. I could understand the danger posed to wildlife by many of these activities, however, the environmental rationale for prohibiting nudity somehow evaded me. Could trout be mortally offended by naked humans?
Sitting at the juncture of the River and the thermal spring proved to be a unique challenge and sensation. As indicated by the sign, the swimming hole situated at 45 degrees latitude, exactly half-way between the equator and the North Pole. This seemed perfectly fitting, as half of your body was unbearably hot, while the other half froze. The end result was a pleasantly satisfying masochistic experience.
An epic forest fire in 1988 had devastated the conifer forest. Fallen gray matchstick trees littered the park everywhere. Still, Old Faithful, the park’s most famous geyser, remained unperturbed by this otherwise disruptive event. For countless eons, Old Faithful had pleased audiences, diligently delivering its load every 91 minutes, while elsewhere in the park unheralded geysers ignominiously spurted their loads willy-nilly. On this particular day, a large and demanding audience impatiently awaited Old Faithful’s performance. Video-camera-wielding Japanese tourists talked excitedly, while hundreds of others tourists stood expectantly with their cameras silently pointing at the hole in the ground. The pressure mounted until a bit of steam finally issued from the vent, followed by a sputter of water. Suddenly, the little spout grew to an impressive 50 feet, gloriously spewing thousands of gallons of water into the sky for more than a minute. All of the excitement must have been too much for Old Faithful; he had erupted 12 minutes prematurely.
Grand Prismatic Spring lived up to its name. Swirling steam over the lake-sized thermal spring lightly veiled surreal iridescent colors; glowing orange and yellow shores fringed deeper pools of green, turquoise, and navy. (You have to see the photos to believe this.)
Heading southeast, we drove over the Continental Divide into Yellowstone’s sister park, Grand Teton. We stopped for a few roadside shots of the picturesque and jagged Teton Mountains that rose majestically from Jackson Lake before we headed back north on the park’s highway. Something big was happening ahead of us. A phalanx of parked cars impeded our progress. Dozens of tourists lined one side of the road, their cameras all pointed in the same direction. Others watched from lawnchairs atop their 40-foot RV’s. Just about the only item missing from the spectacle was the vendor hawking souvenir t-shirts. OK, this may not have qualified as an unadulterated natural wildlife experience, but there, just 30 feet from the highway, was a bonafide wild grizzly bear. Yes, I repeat, a WILD grizzly bear. With both ears tagged with garish red markers and a comically oversized electronic radio-tracking collar more befitting of a circus than the great outdoors, it idly munched on wildflowers, oblivious to the scores of spectators. Much like Grizzly Adams, I braved the threat posed by this untamed beast to bag a few photos before it sauntered out of sight into the forest.
Emboldened by our death-defying wildlife encounter, we shortly stopped to leave the safety of our car for photographs of wild roadside elk. After an equally impressive photographic encounter with deer, we decided to complete our photo collection with photos of a buffalo. Our evasive quarry refused to graze roadside, so I was forced to walk several hundred feet to attempt to get the perfect nature shot. Despite my long journey and a telephoto lens, the best picture I could manage amounted to an indistinguishable black speck. Still, I had captured a photo of an elusive wild buffalo! We rejoicefully continued driving, only to be forced to stop 5 minutes later for a herd of buffalo stubbornly blocking the road.
In the town of West Yellowstone we found affordably-priced buffalo burgers; probably not a coincidence, given the plethora of RV’s and buffalo that cohabitated the park highways. We concluded our adventurous day at local watering hole (not that we drank water) to prepare for another adventurous day of flying the next morning.
> Sky Trip, Part 3: The Final Chapter! (2005-07-31)
< Sky Trip, Part 1: California to Oregon! (2005-07-15)
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