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Three summers back, when I loaded my boys into my (dearly departed) Subaru and drove to Yellowstone (the trip that gave birth to this blog), I met writer and former teacher Brian A. Connolly in Lamar Valley on the morning I took the boys wolf watching. I’ll be forever thankful for how he generously shared his knowledge of and love for wild wolves (and his spotting scope) with the boys and I, and I’ll also be forever thankful for the poem he put in my hands when he found out I am a teacher.  The small print at the bottom reads “Please share this with any teacher you feel is in need of a poem!”  Following the back-and-forth in the comment threads of my last couple of posts, I went and dug it out to share.

Curriculum

It is such a shock
being back
from the wild valley
where for months I lived
in a tent within the sound
of wolves howling,
where bears ambled down mountains
to wander through camp
dressed in the cream of moonlight.

I must clean up my act
for tomorrow’s faculty meeting,
departmental gatherings,
discussion groups where goals are set,
rubrics, outcomes, behavior
modifications are outlined.
I’ll shave, trade sandals for shoes,
wear long pants
so that we can decide
in the high school cafeteria
what we want these kids to know
and how we can tell when they know it;
what battery of tests
will indicate they are ready
to go into the world,
take charge of things,
and do to those who follow
what we have done to them.

Tomorrow, looking sharp, civilized,
with unfailing courage,
I will suggest as a progressive
educational experiment
that we try a field trip;
ten months is all I’ll ask.
Instead of eighty pounds of books,
we give each child a down bag,
a few utensils, a compass, of course,
a blank journal, a good pen.
Drop them off, alone, in wild valleys:
the Tetons, Yellowstone,
the Beartooth, the Sawtooth, the Cascades,
the Adirondacks, the Green, the White,
the Alleghenies.
Let the rustling and snuffling sounds
of darkest night teach them to listen;
let glacial meltwater teach them
the true nature of cold;
let those beings making a living
on icy summits teach survival;
let wildflowers teach beauty;
let morning fog among valley pines
teach them peace;
let the glassy stars
spread across the dark
like a sparkling cloud
be their curriculum.

No tests will be needed,
no mimeograph sheets.
And when they graduate,
each one will know who he is,
that he is part of a living world,
and that his job
is to live in that world
with grace and respect.

–Brian A. Connolly

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We’re in Great Falls, Montana, at the moment, having arrived yesterday after three night’s camping in Yellowstone and the Beartooth Mountains.  Opi is at the laundromat while I hang out at our hotel, letting the boys sleep in.  I don’t have the time to write a proper post, so I’ll mostly let a few pictures speak thousands of words.

Opi continues to cook up a storm, drawing on the experience of “camping” on board his sailboat for nearly two decades.  Two years ago, I mostly prepared glorified backpacking meals on my trip with the boys, but this time we’re taking full advantage of the relative comforts of car camping.  Before departure, we spent the better part of two days building a wooden “chuck box” to serve as the heart of an organized camp kitchen, and we’ve both been inordinately pleased with our creation.  And while Opi cooks, I’ve had more time to fulfill fatherly duties like flying kites or tossing a baseball with the boys.

Tonight’s menu: grilled pork chops with baked potatoes and steamed leeks.

Top of the boys’ list of “to-do’s” in Yellowstone was to try out the new fishing rods they received from their Uncle Michael for their birthdays, so we spent two hours on Saturday scaring all the fish in Nez Perce Creek and a couple more spooking them in the Gibbon River.  Come to think of it, the fish were probably more amused than terrorized by us.  The boys got a lot of casting practice but not a single nibble,  likely using the wrong tackle with the wrong technique in the wrong location.  I was absolutely no help at all, failing miserably in my fatherly duties in this realm.  Fish were rising all around us on the second afternoon, and Uncle Michael would have known what to do.  Nonetheless, I did get a lot of practice untangling hopeless snarls of line, and I no longer need to consult the diagram he gave me for how to tie something on the end.  I practiced enough patience to supply a lifetime of fishing trips.  In the meantime, Opi went and sat on a log and read.

I’ve always thought of unsuccessful fishing as a great excuse for spending more time in locations like this one.

At any rate, Yellowstone was magnificent as usual, and I could fill paragraph after paragraph with superlatives.  I have to laugh, though, that we saw three wolves about a mile from our Madison River campsite—after years of my mostly fruitless effort over a half-dozen visits with students to see Yellowstone’s wolves (hiring expert guides, getting up in the wee hours to be in position at dawn, waiting patiently for hours in freezing temperatures), these three might as well have walked up and introduced themselves.

The boys agree that thermal features, like campfires, are more watchable than television, even static ones like Grand Prismatic Spring.

After two nights at Madison River, we camped in a delightful Shoshone National Forest site up in the Beartooths, right under the two iconic peaks known as the Bear’s Ears.  Somehow I neglected to take pictures, probably because I was too busy enjoying a few Father’s Day beers with my Dad and poking at the campfire with my boys.  I won’t need pictures to remember this night.

That’s enough for now . . . it’s time to leave Great Falls and head north into Canada.  Hope everyone is doing well at home.  Mom, we miss you!

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I’ve been sitting in on a writing class taught by one of my colleagues, Jen Dracos, and this is what came out in my freewrite at the beginning of yesterday’s class.  The prompt was “I’m not going to tell you about . . . ”

I’m not going to tell you about Old Faithful, about the tourists who gather in great half circles on the concentric-ringed benches, looking at their watches and wondering if the Park Service has lied to them. “It’s fifteen minutes overdue” they’ll say to one another.  I’m definitely not going to repeat the teasing “Okay, that was it” refrain that ripples through the crowd after every minor splatter of water in the buildup. To give you the full effect, I’d have to repeat it over and over in a variety of voices from all different sides, pretending to get up and leave each time, and I won’t do that to you, even though I might like your help in figuring out why they believe the joke gets better with repetition. “Old Faithful sure isn’t faithful anymore”  seems likewise to have staying power.

Instead, I want to tell you about the coyote in the Old Faithful parking lot, sliding between parked Winnebagos and Hyundais and Harleys on his arrow-straight transit to God-knows-where.  I’ll tell you about the disdainful side-long glance he gives me as he ghosts past, and how I freeze with one foot on the pavement and one still in my car. He passes by so closely that I can step out and scratch him between the ears, or at least could have if I had dared to disturb the universe.  I forget all about the camera I’m clutching, the bauble I had gone back to the car to fetch.  I’d like to tell you about the wall of lodgepole pines that swallowed him at the far end of the parking lot, but there’s just not that much to say about them, a nondescript clot of trees with nothing behind them but trees and still more trees rolling away for miles and miles and miles, nothing to speak of but the Firehole River, Pipeline Hot Springs, Mallard Lake, the Central Plateau, the Continental Divide.  Maybe someday I’ll find something to tell you about that terrain.

Instead, I guess I’ll have to tell you about Old Faithful after all.  I watched the coyote vanish, looked at my watch, and hustled off to rejoin my family.  I had to hurry; according to the official ranger prediction, the next eruption would occur within plus-or-minus ten minutes of ten minutes from now.

Exactly why I’ve been giving up a free period to audit her class is a topic I’ll write about soon enough–I do have something up my sleeve.

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I’m sitting in the lobby of a suburban Denver Super 8 waiting for a load of clothes to dry so the boys won’t alarm any fellow travelers when Belinda flies home with them tomorrow.  It’s fifteen minutes past midnight; once again a late morning start leads to a late evening stop.  Having spent last night in Saratoga WY, we didn’t have all that far to go.  But I zigzagged us over four different mountain passes and through Rocky Mountain National Park to get here.  Belinda wasn’t real sure about my taking the scenic route, warning me all day long that she wanted us to end our day early. That is until she got to talking to the couple at the next table in Estes Park and added an hour to dinner.  And then we hit road construction traffic on the interstate . . . culture shock for us after driving some achingly lonely roads over the last couple of days.

Here are some pictures . . . though for some reason I seem to have been less active with the camera since we became a foursome.

Friday: Belinda gives me the gift of some alone-time in the morning, taking the boys to a leisurely breakfast while I walk all over Upper Geyser Basin with the goal of adding a new geyser to my “witnessed eruptions” list.  What a glorious morning!  I manage to catch Riverside in action (with the help of an official prediction from the geyser rangers) and am very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to watch unpredictable Beehive geyser give a great performance.

In a picture, Beehive looks dainty and graceful.  In person, the roar and the velocity of the water shooting from the cone is awe-inspiring.  Think of a fire hose nozzle a full three feet in diameter.

Riverside only goes every six hours or so, but it erupts for a full twenty minutes, shooting in an impressive arc over the Firehole River.  The hordes of tourists waiting on Old Faithful to go will never see this.  Well worth the hike and the wait.

From the Old Faithful area, we drove over to Yellowstone Lake and spent most of the afternoon following the Yellowstone River downstream.

Picnic by Yellowstone Lake.  As usual, the boys would rather play than eat.  Getting Andrew to eat has been one of my biggest struggles on this trip.  Five minutes down the road from this stop, I guarantee that Andrew says “Daaaad, I’m hungry.”

We stop at LeHardy rapids to watch some absolutely huge cutthroat trout struggle upstream.

Belinda took this picture through the window of the bison she goaded into nearly ramming my car.  Bad Belinda.  (She’ll tell you this was her favorite moment of her time with us.)  Right now I’m hitting the accelerator.  Gotta go!

This time when we visit the brink of Upper Falls, I make Andrew use the bathroom next to the parking lot before we start down the trail.  As a result, we get to linger for a while, admiring the rainbows in the spray.

Somehow, the boys agree to hike down Uncle Tom’s Trail to view Lower Falls (more than 300 steps descending 3/4 of the way to the bottom of the canyon).

Will on the way back up the steps.

We walk the Rim Trail to Artist Point, and I get this shot along the way.  One of my favorites for the whole trip.

After dinner in Canyon, we drive back over Mount Washburn and up the Lamar River Valley.  On her first trip through this part of the park, Belinda gets to see both a grizzly bear and a wolf.  Granted, they still looked tiny even through spotting scopes, but I’m envious of her luck.  We also watch a big herd of bison on the run, clearly spooked by something.  Once again, I’m evidently too busy with my binoculars to take any pictures in Lamar Valley.  We end the day in Cooke City.

Saturday: We drive back up into the Beartooths, play in the snow, and climb a little “peak” just off the road, then follow the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone via the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (no pictures, somehow) to the uber-historic town of Cody, where we spend the night.  We are less interested in history, however, than we are in Cody’s self-proclaimed status of “Rodeo Capital of the World.”

Andrew won’t walk through the “stinky steam,” but he has no trouble with climbing on this big bull.  Go figure.

He also has no hesitation in getting into the ring with all the other kids to chase the calf with a ribbon tied to its tail.  Big brother decides not to participate but regrets his decision almost immediately.

Andrew has a great time running around the ring, but afterwards he’s downright angry that he didn’t get to the calf first and win the prize.

No pictures downloaded yet from yesterday or today, as the USB camera adaptor seems to be a new addition to the “lost items” list.  Oh, well.  Belinda would probably say that there’s nothing picturesque about central Wyoming, just sagebrush by the billions and random, incomprehensible rock formations.  I really like these landscapes; thank God that Belinda has the boys to entertain her.

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Well, from this point, the tenor of the trip has changed a bit.  On Wednesday afternoon, I shipped home much of our camping gear from Jackson before going to the airport to pick up Belinda.  We’ve become a foursome.  And I sit right now in the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn . . . extra luxurious accommodations compared to what we’ve been used to.

(BTW, we shipped via UPS.  Why is it so easy to find a UPS Store but not see UPS trucks on the road?  FedEx trucks continue to be everywhere.)

Backtracking a bit, here are the past couple of days in pictures.

Monday: From Swan Laundry in West Yellowstone, my last post location, we drove back into the park and on to Upper Geyser Basin, where we walked out onto the boardwalk just in time to see Castle Geyser erupt in the distance.  Castle has become perhaps my favorite Yellowstone geyser; it only goes a couple of times a day, but it’s relatively predictable and very impressive.  Castle’s eruptions last much longer than those of Old Faithful, and they’re followed by an impressive roaring steam phase, which was still in full force when we got this close.

Daaad, will the stinky steam get us?

We wandered the area for an hour or so, waiting for Old Faithful’s next eruption.

If possible, visit Upper Geyser Basin after dinner, when you can have it (relatively speaking) to yourself.

My favorite vantage point for watching Old Faithful is on the backside, away from the buildings and the crowds on the main boardwalk.  Plus, you can sit right over the outflow stream where it drops into the Firehole River.

The boys both say that “tasting Old Faithful” has been one of their favorite things so far.  Funny what resonates with them.

We ate dinner at the lodge, watched the sun go down, and saw Old Faithful go again (a much longer and more impressive show this time).

Never in a million years did I think this picture would turn out.

A personal rule: on any given visit, give Upper Geyser Basin a long enough visit to see two eruptions.

Despite all lodgings in Yellowstone having been booked solid months in advance, we hit the cancellation jackpot for the first time on Monday night and ended up staying in Grant Village.  We had lingered so long and so late at Upper Geyser Basin, that this was a real stroke of luck.  At the same time, I secure a cancelled room at the Old Faithful Inn for Thursday, knowing Belinda will be thrilled (I understand these rooms can book a year in advance).

Tuesday: Driving south to the Tetons, we tried and failed to snag a campsite at Jenny Lake (10:30 AM is not early enough!) before backtracking and establishing camp at Lizard Creek.  We then drove south again to spend the afternoon and evening at String Lake.

No swimming pools like this at home!

In fact, there’s no natural swimming hole I can think of within an hour and a half of home that’s clean enough to let the boys wade around in.  Certainly not going to let them do this in the Hooch!  What a shame . . . no wonder modern kids suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder.

Will happily cooperates while I experiment with backlighting and shutter speed.

Returning to camp, we learn two things: 1) our campground hosts know exactly where we live (their son lives in our neighborhood) and 2) a black bear has been nosing around our camp.

Fresh claw marks . . . the bear was up in this tree when our campsite neighbors came back for the evening.  Daddy Hoot, them Park Rangers aren’t just trying to be annoying with those pesky food storage rules!  This bear got no joy in our campsite.

Wednesday: Lingered late in camp while Will played with the ten-year old girl from the next campsite and I talked with our campground host.  Poor Andrew . . . this is the second time that Will has found a campground friend, and Andrew has ended up feeling pretty left out.  Will tries conscientiously to include him, but he just doesn’t quite know how to hang with older kids and ends up coming back to where I am and moons around.

Leaving camp, we spend the afternoon getting ready for Mommy . . . showering, doing laundry (again!), cleaning out and organizing the car, shipping stuff home so she has room to sit.

Belinda arrives on schedule, we eat dinner at Dornan’s in Moose (cowboy-style Dutch-oven cooking–highly recommended), and then drive to Jackson Lake Lodge for the night (yet another cancellation jackpot).  Happy that Mommy is with us, the boys stay up too late.  In his fatigue, Will gets all weepy and emotional.  Our dynamic is definitely different . . . no more Team Testosterone.

Thursday: Why the hell does housekeeping begin knocking on doors at 8:00 AM?  And why knock when you don’t really listen to the people inside yelling “We’re still in here”?  Just a question.

But we slept late anyway before heading to Jenny Lake, where we join the tourist masses for the boat shuttle and the subsequent hike to Hidden Falls and then Inspiration Point.  Will misunderstands me when I say that the trail into Cascade Canyon is flat once you get beyond Inspiration Point, and at one point he turns and yells “Daaad, you were wrong; this trail isn’t flat!”  Another dad going the other way with teenagers in tow comments grimly “He’ll never believe you again.”

I haven’t loaded my pictures of the hike onto the computer yet. but I’m not sure they’ll be that good anyway, the mid-afternoon light being far too harsh (it was flat-out hot today).

Now, we’re backtracking through Yellowstone with Belinda along.  Tonight at Old Faithful, tomorrow night probably in Cooke City again before turning south towards Denver, where she’ll fly home with the boys and I’ll turn the Outback eastward to finish the circuit.

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Without a doubt, the most beautiful seven words right now in the English language are “Will, take your brother to the bathroom.”

As I dreamed about and then planned this trip, I had any number of people ask “are you going to be able to handle those two by yourself for all that time” with the same disbelieving tone they might use while asking  “Are you sure bison-tipping is a good idea?”  I had every confidence in the world that I could—my boys are good travelers, and our agenda was loose enough as to be functionally non-existent if need be.  At least that’s what I hoped.

And they have been good travelers, mind-blowingly good travelers, even better than I expected.  I’ll give you a for-instance: this morning I dragged them from their sleeping bags to go wolf watching in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, revisiting the central point of wildlife watching etiquette as we drove—no loud noises of any kind (you even close your car door witha gentle shove of the hip).  The hard-core wolf-watching regulars with their spotting scopes and two-way radios are unfailingly warm and friendly with the casual tourists, but then again I wanted to be accepted by the inner circle (or should I say “pack”), and most parents with six and four-year olds don’t hang around for two hours at a stretch.

Anyway, they did me proud and then some, hanging around in the car and entertaining themselves for long periods when there was no action and getting out quietly and eagerly when I knocked gently on the window.  And then when Will stepped down from a wolf-watcher’s spotting scope, took out pen and paper and began earnestly drawing what he had seen without any prompting whatsoever, I thought my heart would just explode.  (More on wolf watching—our Sunday morning church service—later in this post.)  Needless to say, the pack approved.

As good as they have been, as regularly as my heart has wanted to explode with gratitude and pride, this has still been tough going for a lone parent.  Someone always has to go to the bathroom or needs to be buckled in or wants something to drink or needs his pancake cut or simply wants a response to a “Dad?” call before asking another question.  I have to laugh at myself for packing my usual traveling library of field guides and tree-hugging literature; I think I’ve read one chapter of Scott Russell Sanders and opened my bird field guide once.  I’m surprised I’ve done as well as I have with taking pictures; every time the camera comes out they start asking to take turns, no longer satisfied with having little disposables of their own.  Will and I have had some earnest discussions about the meaning of the word “pester.”

A very typical Andrew pose.  “Daaad, I caan’t hold it!”

I told Belinda on the phone the other day that I was wrong when thought I’d be the one who most wanted to camp.  I figured the boys would push me to stay in hotels more often.  In fact, it’s been just the opposite—the boys love camping, are disappointed every time we head for town.  And why not?  Each campsite is a big playground for them.

The main attraction at Pebble Creek campground, our home in Yellowstone for three days.  Why am I not in this picture?  Well, I guess because I’m taking it, but in other circumstances it’d be because I’m too damn busy.

It’s just so much bloody work–unpacking the car, pitching the tent, inflating the mattresses, assembling the stove, cooking the food, cutting the food, washing the dishes, picking up and disposing bear-attracting scraps and so forth and so on.  All while “Daaad” rings out every three minutes.

And so there’s no way we could function without my giving them more and more responsibility and freedom.  That’s why the words “Will, take your brother to the bathroom” are the most beautiful in the English language.  Followed closely by “Andrew, ask your brother to help you.”  Or “You boys stay right here for two minutes and don’t move while I [go to the bathroom, run across the street to the ATM, whatever].”

And I have to say something about their ability to entertain themselves.  Right now I’m sitting in a restaurant in West Yellowstone, and Andrew is playing some sort of game with two pieces of silverware (in lieu of talking to Mommy on the telephone).  They’ve made up games using colored pencils, hotel room keys, sticks, rocks, empty water bottles—you name it.  Just before leaving home two weeks ago I decided not to let them pick out a couple of toys to take with them, and I’m frankly glad I did.  And this experience just reinforces my absolute refusal to ever buy a car with an onboard DVD system.

So what have we been up to?

Even the tortoise arrives at his destination eventually.

We entered the park on July 4th by the Northeast Entrance and made camp at Pebble Creek, a rather small and remote site, nothing like the industrial campgrounds at Canyon and Madison.  We drove up and down Lamar Valley and made a quick visit to the crowds at Tower Falls, but mostly we hung around camp and explored its immediate area before going back up the road to Cooke City for fireworks in the evening.  The fireworks were okay, about what you’d expect in a town of 140, but the way the big blasts echoed off the surrounding mountains for a full seven seconds was pretty impressive.  For his part, Andrew spent the whole time with his hands clamped firmly over his ears and asking to get back in the car . . . until they were over and he started talking about how great they were.

On Saturday, we drove toward Canyon, visited the super-cool new Visitor Center, checked out Upper Falls (but had to leave quickly because Andrew had to pee), had lunch by the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley, and walked around the Mud Volcano thermal group.  Will and I are both big fans of the feature called Churning Cauldron.  Andrew isn’t real sure about the “stinky steam.”

Maybe we can catch a fish for lunch!

Will, I don’t want to go in the stinky steam!

But the big highlights for the day were the bears.  We saw four black bears, including a mother and cub, and three grizzlies, including one which we watched for a good thirty minutes from a distance of probably only 40 yards, a truly magical and bizarre experience, the bear being safely atop a thirty-foot roadcut cliff and being ogled by hundreds of tourists below.

No I don’t (yet) own a really big telephoto lens (I top out at 150mm).  He (she?) was really that close

The bear kept digging and eating, digging and eating.  Occasionally a rock would cut loose and roll down the slope, dropping off the roadcut and narrowly missing a tourist car parked below.

And then yesterday we had our wolf morning.  In the past, I have spent a lot of Westminster’s money, contracting with the Yellowstone Institute for their guides to take my courses wolf watching.  I’ve stood and shivered through a number of early mornings, waiting to see what might turn up in what were considered “sure-fire” locations.  And I had seen nothing.  So I debated trying again with the boys, but I’m thankful that I did.  Most of the pack stayed back in the trees, but we heard them howling a couple of times, and then one adult made a circuit all the way around our position, popping in and out of view for a half hour or so.  As wolf sightings go, I guess it was pretty ho-hum, if there is such a thing (yesterday in another part of the Park we just missed seeing one take an elk calf), but it totally made our morning.

We spent the afternoon hiking to Trout Lake, where the big attraction was watching the spawning Cutthroat Trout swim up the inlet stream.

Hiking through a garden of wildflowers . . .

. . . to a beautiful little lake.

They don’t really show in this picture, but there are at least a dozen big cutthroat in this riffle in front of Andrew.  He squeals with delight every time they give him a good splash.

Okay, that’s our progress so far.  If there are any typos, I’ll have to fix them later . . . our laundry is done and the boys are hungry.  This evening, we’re off to Old Faithful.

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