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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big Sky

When last we talked, Diane, Alice and I had just left Yellowstone National Park after four fruitless days of looking for grizzlies. But we did see millions of wildflowers, thousands of tourists in cars, hundreds of geysers and hotpots, dozens of other animals of several species, several park rangers, and a smattering of interesting (some good and some bad) fellow travelers. If you missed all of that, you can read Yellowstone Part 1 and Part 2 to catch up.

But even after all of that, we weren't ready to go home yet. Alice hadn't even collected her name tag for the medical conference. The medical conference that triggered this whole trip by paying for gas and a hotel room in Big Sky, Montana. Big Sky is a big Montana ski resort. I'd never been there and wondered what we could do for fun at a ski resort in the summer. Plenty, as it turns out.

We pulled into that already-paid-for hotel, Buck's T-4, in late afternoon, to find a crew just finishing set-up for  "A Taste of Big Sky,"an event in which many restaurants offered small sample portions of their menu for anywhere from $2.00 to $5.00. (I can't remember the exact name of the event, so I made up "A Taste of Big Sky.") Of course that's where we ate dinner. It was as if they scheduled it just for our benefit! About 200 people crammed themselves into this modest roped-off area and circulated table-to-table with their wine samples.

We sat at a table with an elegant older couple who looked really rich. You know, tasteful well-made Western wear, a bit of silver and turquoise jewelry, stylish haircuts. I proceeded to question them about what they were doing in Big Sky. They spend the summers there and the winters in Michigan with their grandchildren with assorted jaunts to the Caribbean and Europe at various points during the year. We saw a few other elegant older couples in the area over the next few days. They said they used to come for the skiing, but now they don't like the cold weather. Even though I hear Michigan's pretty darned cold in the winter, too. But grandkids can make up for a lot of bad weather. I think we may have been the only out-of-town guests there. Everybody was greeting everybody else like long-lost best friends and catching up on all the gossip. The atmosphere was really friendly, warm, and fun.

For only about $20 apiece, we had small portions of buffalo and elk disguised as nouvelle cuisine and heaping helpings of barbecued ribs. We tried to get some Thai food, but they sold out too fast. Diane and Alice tried two wines, both of which they didn't like. I had a lamb slider (teeny hamburger-style sandwich), which I quite liked. Then we finished with a Mexican-ized cheesecake sopapilla dessert and two helpings of huckleberry ice cream (we were still in Montana, after all). Very fun and an auspicious start to a summer vacation in a ski resort.

Back in the room, Diane and Alice opened up their laptops. Yay! We were now in a really nice hotel with free internet. Also, we could close or open the windows and we had air conditioning. I mention these things only by way of contrast to the historic lodge and run-down cabins in Yellowstone, which are worth staying in because they're inside the park. But hey, it was nice to have wireless access again. They efficiently picked out a whole list of activities and places in just a few minutes of browsing. Just like that, we had an itinerary.

Early next morning, the three of us piled into the car and drove about 20 minutes up into the mountains, right to the base of the ski hill. Alice then had to go to work by finally attending the medical conference. Diane and I headed back to the Lower Village and found a cute little bakery and settled in with coffee.

I ordered a huckleberry scone, and made a traumatic discovery. After all the "fresh" huckleberry ice cream I thought I'd been eating the last few days, it turns out it wasn't just the cream that was frozen. The baker told me she'd been unable to get huckleberries from her supplier for the past week. They were entering into the annual huckleberry shortage when LAST YEAR'S STOCK OF FROZEN HUCKLEBERRIES runs out a couple of weeks before the new crop is ripe. It was even worse this year because spring was very cold and wet, and all the berries were ripening later than average. She could see I was upset, so she baked blueberry scones to console me. I couldn't quite taste the difference, so I did feel comforted.

When doctors attend conferences in beautiful vacation places, they end their work day at 1:00. So we ran up the hill to fetch Alice, then headed north up the Gallatin River Canyon towards Bozeman.

We made our first stop at Bozeman Hot Springs. This is a combination hot springs, RV park, and gym. We were only interested in the hot springs. They have six indoor pools. The biggest is an ordinary heated pool, full of kids splashing and screaming. On each end, they have small pools, hot and hotter and so hot you think you might die, and another freezing cold. The water has a bit of a mineral, sulfur-ish smell to it, and the pipes are glazed with calcite. We lounged for over an hour, moving from hot to hotter to hottest and then plunging into cold. My back had been stiff for a few days from so much time riding in cars and from too-soft beds, but after Bozeman Hot Springs, I felt relaxed to the point of limpness. Wonderful! And since we weren't gym members, I didn't have to feel guilty about not working out while I was there.

Next, on to Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Museum of the Rockies is known for their incredible dinosaur display, starting with this Tyrannosaurus Rex outside the entrance. (Photo by Diane, because I forgot to charge my camera battery.)

Diane and Alice in fear for their lives! Don't call us nerds, or we'll send the T. Rex after you!

This dinosaur display is fascinating. Many museums display only reproductions of the original bones, but here, a significant number of displays include original dinosaur bones. The sheer number of creatures and bones and displays is amazing. And exhausting! My back hurt again by the time we'd finished looking at everything. Dr. Jack Horner is the museum's curator. Back in 1988, I read his book "Digging Dinosaurs," and was fascinated. So between the curator and the location in Montana, home of many many dead dinosaurs, the museum had to be good!

Digging Dinosaurs: The Search That Unraveled the Mystery of Baby DinosaursDigging Dinosaurs: The Search That Unraveled the Mystery of Baby Dinosaurs by Jack Horner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Next morning, Alice went back to her conference to learn something. And Diane and I went back to the Gallatin River to learn something... fishing! With Montana Whitewater Rafting Company.

Diane casting on dry land.

Our teacher, Alex, had the six of us students stand in a row on dry land and practice casting at lifesize wooden fish mounted on posts. Diane and I aced it. I hope Alice was learning as much, too.

Next, Alex showed us some flies and talked about insect species and life cycles and what fish look for in a snack.

This was my chance! I scrolled back to Yellowstone on my camera screen and showed this picture to Alex. He identified it as a salmon fly.

Now we were ready to try casting into water. Alex cautioned us that the fish had not been biting well. Due to the spring's high flows, the water had been murky for weeks, and had only cleared up three days before. Also, it takes lots of practice to cast well. And the point of fly fishing is not really how many fish you catch. It's the journey. And so on. So I wasn't expecting too much.

But Diane still thought she might catch something. Here she is casting into the Gallatin, aiming for the sweet spot right between the quiet water in the eddy and the fast-flowing center current.

Alex could do a lot more with a cast than we could!

He lives for fly fishing. In fact, he lives in a tent right on the Gallatin's bank. He grew up in Bozeman and learned to fish and ski as a boy. He went to Europe to teach skiing. He went fishing one fateful day in Europe, caught a fish, and remembered how much he loves fishing. So he's back in Montana, where he fishes, goes to work teaching fishing or guiding fishing trips, and fishes.

And no, we didn't catch anything. But it was okay, because Alex taught a good lesson and we enjoyed that. We enjoyed casting over and over. It's kind of addictive. You just want to do it better next time so you can't stop trying. And it was delightful hanging out by the Gallatin all morning.

And bonus! We saw these otters on the far bank. They caught a fish.

But since we didn't catch any trout, we picked up some salmon at the market on our way to pick up Dr. Alice at her conference, and headed back up the Gallatin Canyon to find a nice picnic area.

Bear warnings, just like in Yellowstone! I hear bears like salmon...maybe we'll see one now!

I mentioned a few times in my two posts from Yellowstone that Diane stores mountains of trivia in her head and that her mind jumps nimbly (and unpredictably) all over the place. Here's an example: on one of our many drives through the Gallatin Canyon, we passed a small trailer that looked as if it had seen better days and as if it had been parked in its camping spot for quite some time. Diane said, "I would have liked to be a gypsy." Pause to look at the trailer. "Except for the part about getting beat up and run out of town."

I took this gypsy-themed picture especially for Diane the next day in a different place.

But back to our afternoon on the Gallatin River. No, we didn't see any bears at the picnic area. That's okay, because we were on to something else scary and thrilling. For the last several years of my career, I worked with many people who love whitewater rafting. Some of them even managed to work it into their job duties, something about protecting endangered fish or river management plans...whatever. I am always drawn to the beauty of river canyons but have always been too terrified of whitewater to get into a raft. But on our first morning in Big Sky, when Diane and I went into Montana Whitewater's headquarters to sign up for fly fishing, Diane just matter-of-factly assumed that of course we would go rafting, too. And later, Alice also assumed that we would. Under their influence, I suddenly found myself open to the idea. And then I found myself signing the list and handing over my credit card. But  I insisted on the easier trip, class II and III rapids only. Lucky for me, Alice waited until after they ran my credit card to tell her terrifying story about being trapped under a capsized raft on the Zambezi River, which is full of hippos and crocodiles. She survived, though.

I was scared at first. After we came safely through the first three sets of rapids, I realized I probably wouldn't fall out of the raft and then it was just fun! Really fun! A nice father and daughter pair from back East rode with us. The daughter, 12-years-old, was a bit nervous, too, so I couldn't let go and be all dramatic about being scared or I would be a bad influence on an adventurous young girl. Totally against my philosophy of life and outdoor recreation. She and I both relaxed and started whooping through the rapids at about the same time. Our guide (very fun) told us only chickens sit inside the raft and that if everybody sits centered on the outside edge of the raft, the raft is actually more stable. I didn't care...I sat a bit to the inside so I would not tip over and into the Gallatin.

Alice is in the yellow lifejacket. Diane and I are on the side near the camera. I'm in the back. My 12-year-old friend is in the orange helmet with her dad in front of her. (Greatly over-priced photo by Montana Whitewater. But heck, I had to have the picture, didn't I?)

One of my travel friends likes to say, "Feel the fear and do it anyway." I'm thrilled that I put down the fear and took a ride in a raft. But don't look for me on the Zambezi. Or in any other class V rapids.

Oh, and between rapids, we had time to look around and enjoy the river. And we saw two fly fishermen bringing in nice trout. I guess Alex lied to us about the fish not biting so we wouldn't feel bad when they didn't bite for us.

We were now on a roll, adventure-wise, so the next morning we drove through miles of beautiful Montana...

...north towards Bozeman, then east towards Whitehall...

...south towards Ennis... Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. Here's the view of the Jefferson River as seen from the trail up to the cave entrance.

We toured the cave with about 20 other visitors and a young park ranger who told awful jokes with a sunny attitude.

Here are a few photos from inside the cave, but only in those areas with no bats--the babies were just out and would be disturbed by camera flash.

Mmmm....bacon. This formation is called cave bacon.

Diane! Don't touch the cave! And don't hit your head on the bacon! (Photo by Alice.)

I'm not sure if I meant to get Diane in this picture or not. The camera viewfinder only showed total darkness  every time I tried to look through it, so my cave pictures were a bit hit and miss. I deleted all of the pictures of the backs of people's heads.

Me and Alice in the middle of one of the numerous long stairways. (Photo by Diane.)

(Photo by Diane.)

Here I am ducking for a low spot in the ceiling, to be followed by a short slide on my seat down a stone slide. (Photo by Diane.)

A fun tour through an interesting cave.

 The woman staffing the visitors' center told us about nearby Nevada City and Virginia City. They're located about ten  miles apart in the area of an 1880's gold rush. Both have short main streets with buildings from that era.

A collector of old log buildings bought Nevada City and bought a bunch of old log buildings and relocated them there as a museum.

Seeing the sights at the Nevada City Museum...

(Beautiful photo by Diane.)

Here's the "Cheap Cash Store," which must have been the forerunner of the "Family Dollar Store." Or maybe Walmart.

Alice on the porch of the nicest house in town. It belonged to a senator.

The oldest restored schoolroom in Montana.

Inside the buggy barn--the historic version of the garage full of junk.

Montana: the Big Sky State.

The music room was full of all kinds of mechanical music-making contraptions, like this one.

Here we are up the road at Virginia City, still under that big Montana sky.

Virginia City still has the old buildings, but many of them have been converted to cute shops and cafes. And an ice cream shop for one more round of huckleberry ice cream!

I find this photo interesting for the contrast in clothing between the local man, probably a rancher, at left and the tourist just behind him in striped tee and yellow capris. He's a man. The outfit is so unusual for Montana that I thought maybe he was European. But when he spoke, the accent was totally American.

I guess the Montana women dressed the same as Scarlett O'Hara down South. No room for huckleberry ice cream in there!

Heading back towards Bozeman in late afternoon, we watched a series of storm cells move across the Jefferson River valley. Clouds were rolling around and raining on three sides of us, but we were in sunshine.

We stopped in to see the "Water of the Gods" at Norris Hot Springs on our way past, but we felt sort of weird and out of place. The vibe was old hippie and women were lounging pool-side in bikinis. The pool and surroundings were small, so you'd have to engage with fellow bathers unless you pretended you didn't hear what they said and looked the other way. Anyway, we felt too shy. So we continued back over to Bozeman for another visit to Bozeman Hot Springs, followed by dinner in town. It was Friday night, so there was a long wait at the pizza place that smelled delicious and must have been good because everybody was there. So we had a quick sandwich next door and drove home in the dark in the rain that had now caught up to us.

It was a surprise, but the doctors convened back at their conference on Saturday morning. After we dropped off Alice, Diane and I wandered around up above the ski area.

Foggy and cool early in the morning.

We saw lots of rich peoples' houses.

A family of foxes played outside their den near one of the rich people's driveways, well behind the "No Trespassing" sign.

We were hanging over the gate watching the foxes when a big black  SUV pulled up behind us and honked. I thought the rich authors of the "no trespassing" sign had caught us playing with their wildlife. But it was a family of fellow tourists from Florida, and the husband came out of the car apologizing for honking the horn. It was a rental car and he didn't mean to do it.

They told us they'd just come from a nearby hiking trail where they'd seen a moose. Moose! Another animal we hadn't spotted yet on this trip. So off we went. We hiked maybe half a mile, well past the place described as hosting the moose. So many people were coming up the trail on this beautiful Saturday morning that we gave up on the moose and headed back to the ski area.

Just one part of the sprawling Big Sky Ski Resort.

We rode the chairlift to the top, for the view.

We had to wait over 20 minutes to ride back down, though, because they can only load every 12th chair on the way down. And dozens of people had hiked to the top as a  fundraiser. I thought they should walk back down. Heck, they'd already done the hard part. We had so much time in line that Diane offered to take a photo of the group behind us. But their camera battery was dead. But, wait, Diane had the same camera as them. She traded out the camera batteries. They posed for a series of shots. She traded the camera batteries back. And we still had time to befriend two other people to share a four-person chair, and have a nice chat with them and tell a few jokes before the four of us boarded the chairlift for the ride down.

Alice and the other doctors were just finishing up the grueling conference. The three of us grabbed lunch at one of the kiosks at the base of the ski hill, then headed south toward home.

One more drive through one more beautiful meadow of wildflowers.

I thought the beautiful wildflowers were a nice way to say good-bye to Montana and end the trip. But wait...there's more! We drove up on three cars pulled over to the side of the highway with people pointing across the distant river and looking through binoculars. And there it was! Way off in the distance, but visible with binoculars....

...Grizzly Bear!!

Now that's the way to end a visit to the Yellowstone area! I can go home happy now.

We traveled home through southern Idaho, which is one of the world's premiere potato-growing regions--as illustrated by the above photo of a fridge magnet I bought at a truck stop in Idaho a couple of years ago.  Somewhere between Island Park and Rexburg we drove into an area of potato farms. Diane had one more comment to make. "Potatoes must be a boring crop to farm."

As a  native of southern Idaho, I was somewhat taken aback. "Why do you say that?" I asked, as soon as I stopped laughing.

"Well, you know, they're all dirty and underground and you have to dig them up."

And with that one last piece of,, totally off-the-wall opinion from Diane, we cruised on home laughing and happy.  Thanks, Diane and Alice, for inviting me to tag along!

For more photos of Big Sky and environs, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely gorgeous, and, wow, what a contrast to super-crowded Seoul! All those big skies and scenic vistas were a breath of fresh air. And I must say, I enjoyed Diane's 'apropos of nothing' statement..they were interesting!
    I am trying to work up the nerve to go ww rafting myself - encouraging to see you survived!