Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brother, Can you Spare Some Chicken Noodle?

According to news reports, the only stock to rise after Wall Street collapsed yesterday was Campbell's Soup.

Is this a harbinger of things to come?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

White Candidate, Dead Pubs

My little corner of the publishing empire where I work rests uncomfortably close to a non-descript reference shelf marked "Dead Pubs." This is the place where we keep bound copies of newsletters and books that, for one reason or another, didn't make it. It is, to coin a phrase, the place where publications go to die.

I was staring out at the shelf from my cubicle the other day, noting the array of blue binders, all tagged with four letter acronyms the company uses to name its many compliance publications. One row in particular stood out. Side by side were binders labeled "SPEC," "TMAN," "TRAN" "TRAD," and my favorite, "TOOL".

Then it hit me: Don't these all sound like names of Palin children?

I did a little research and discovered that most of you, as usual, are way ahead of me. Scroll down a little bit to find the "Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator."

For the record, I am Stinger Assassin Palin. I can live with that.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Epilogue: The Rainbow and the Bear

"Big bear! Big, big bear! Big bear..chase..me!"
--John Candy, "The Great Outdoors"

I'll get to the part about the bear soon enough.

I don't remember much about Mammoth Hot Springs. The area is similar to Geyser Country, with smoking pools of water in prismatic hues of orange and blue. Like the Plitvice Lakes, which I recently visited in Croatia, the area is formed by sculpted mounds of travertine, a form of limestone that is dissolved and carried to the surface by boiling water and forms layer after layer of steaming rock.

We saw a regal-looking bull elk with an ornate crown, it's royalty only somewhat diminished by the tag dangling from one of its antlers. And I went swimming -- again. This time, the Boiling River lived up to its name. The swimming area is a series of spa-like holes separated by rock walls, where the scalding Boiling River hot spring blends into the cold rushing water of the Gardiner River. You have to skeeter through a jarring mix of very hot and very cold water before you get to a comfortable spot -- it's kind of like taking a shower in England -- but it's worth the effort.

From there, we found our way to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I made the vertigo-inducing trek down the 328 steps of Uncle Tom's Trail -- we had a longer hike planned for the afternoon, so my Dad sat this one out -- where I was greeted by the 308-ft tall Lower Falls. And an amazing rainbow.

After the final hike, four miles past the Lower Falls along the South Rim Trail, we got back in the car and criss-crossed a wide swath of the park we had visited previously: the lush Hayden Valley, the tempestuous Lake Yellowstone, past West Thumb Basin and then south to Grand Teton.

All of which brings me to the bear.

As we approached the Signal Mountain Summit Road, where we spotted two black bears on the first day of our trip, we decided to make one last run in the hope that lightning would strike twice.

At the very top of the road, we spied a small group of people huddled above the wild grasslands that led to the valley below. I couldn't make out what they were looking at, so I asked. A woman pointed to a berry bush not more than 20 feet down. I hadn't looked there because it was so close. And there, much to my excitement, was another black bear, this one looking just slightly older than a cub. It was much closer than the other ones we'd seen, but like the others remained oblivious to our presence.

While looking through the viewfinder of my camera, I noticed that he was making his way closer. He remained unthreatening, blithely munching on leaves and berries. The next photo was taken when he was about 10 feet away. The caption might be, "What big eyes you have!"

Threatening or no, the bear was now a little too close, even for the most enthusiastic photographers among us. Some moved back. Others returned to their cars. I joined 2 or 3 shutterflies who moved to higher ground. I was fiddling with my camera, when I was startled by the sound of rustling in the leaves below the fencepost at the top of the lookout. That's when the bear poked its head through the lowest rung of the fence.

I must have been in slight shock because my first instinct was to take a picture. It's not a very good picture, mind you. But it was taken without amplification or zoom when the beast was not five feet from me. I could have scratched it behind the ears if I wanted to. But luckily, my senses returned and I took five slow, steady paces back.

I walked down from the lookout back to the spot where I first saw the crowd. Those who remained were mostly up near the lookout, trying to capture the excitement from a safe distance. I was more or less by myself -- although people were close by -- when I heard the now familiar, foreboding sound of rustling in the brush. This time, I walked back right away as a second, somewhat larger bear made its way into the middle of the road. It seemed befuddled -- perhaps it was looking for the other bear, a relative? -- before it was shooed off by a Teton fireman who had joined the throng to help ensure safety.

I know it is easy to overdramatize such encounters, as the Onion does hilariously in this parody, but then again, how often does one come within five feet of a bear? I could have been killed! It was a wonderfully adventurous way to cap off a fantastic trip that was full of adventure. As is always true with trips of this kind, exposure only breeds a desire for more -- a wish to delve more deeply, to stay longer and more fully absorb the wonder and purity of this place.

As such, I am left with wonderful memories until I return. Before I finish my travelogue, I want to take a sec and thank those of you who offered invaluable advice and tips before I left, including Donna, Matt, Jim and Laura. Of course, I also want to thank my Dad, who had the foresight and generosity to make it all happen and was a wonderful travel companion for this unforgettable week in the wild. What can I say? Thanks, Dad. I love you.

If you'd like to see more of my photos, go to this link (Unfortunately, the video files are too large to download anywhere but on Youtube). If you see a shot you like that I didn't post, let me know.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the West

"I've never slept out underneath the stars,
The closest that I came to that was one time my car
Broke down for an hour in the suburbs at night
I lied about being the outdoor type."
--The Lemonheads, "The Outdoor Type"

In summer, the town of Cody, Wyoming -- about an hour east of Yellowstone -- smells vaguely of sulfur from extinct geysers and frequently fills with dust and orange haze emanating from wildfires in the nearby Shoshone National Forest. It's an appropriate setting for a place named for William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the cowboy and showman who did more than anyone to popularize the myth of the Wild West. Cody is a haven for bikers and a museum to outlaws of an earlier era, a place where history and kitsch comfortably co-exist.

Before arriving at our hotel, we passed Bork's Guns (Sale!) and a giant statue of a cowboy, surrounded by tumbleweeds, that towered over an ice cream stand. I love stuff like that. It reminded of when I lived in Bangor, Maine, and for three years passed a colossus of Paul Bunyon on my way to work.

We stayed at the historic Irma Hotel, opened in 1902 and named for Buffalo Bill's daughter. The room boasted ancient patriotic wallpaper, classic corner sinks and antique wardrobes and light fittings. There was taxidermy everywhere in the hotel, and I mean everywhere: all manner of mounted heads of deer, elk, bison, and big-horn sheep. It's just the cool thing over there, I guess. Its a facet of decor all over Cody, from hotels and restaurants to museums and even the local visitor center.

I have to admit, it creeped me out a bit. I have nothing against those who hunt for food and obviously, I had little problem eating the results (delicious!), but after passing the 20th mounted animal head, I began to think of that scene in "Planet of the Apes" where Charlton Heston discovers the stuffed human display outside the office of Dr. Zaius.

Cody is primarily a tourist town, but still retains the feel of a rural Western settlement. Like most of the state, it is very conservative. You can usually get a sense of the political mainstream in any given town by perusing the opinion pages of the local paper; this one had a regular column by Ann Coulter -- enough said. Just outside the hotel, next to a sign advertising "Col. Cody's Wild West Emporium," two young born-again Christians stood on a box, bibles in hand, preaching the power of redemption to bikers and other assorted visitors.

The larger-than-life figure of Buffalo Bill is perhaps an ideal prism through which to view the contradictions of the American West. A Union soldier in the Civil War, the youngest rider on the Pony Express and a scout during the Indian Wars, Cody is known primarily for his skill in hunting buffalo (he once bragged that he killed over 4,200 bison in 18 months) and his world famous Wild West Show that traveled the world with the likes of Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley. At the turn of the century in 1900, Cody may have been the most recognizable celebrity on the planet. But toward the end of his life, the bison were nearly extinct and the once-fearsome Indian tribes were almost completely confined to reservations. Before he died nearly penniless due to bad investments, he urged the government to respect all Native American treaties and put an and to the wanton slaughter of buffalo and other game.

These various strands of history come together in Cody's intriguing Buffalo Bill Historical Center. The center is actually five museums in one: the memorabilia-filled Buffalo Bill Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Draper Museum of Natural History and the Cody Firearms Museum. My Dad and I spent the bulk of our time in the atmospheric and affecting Indian Museum. Many of the ceremonial garments on display, dating back more than a hundred years, are in stunning condition. The art was placed in historical context, something the Cody museum does much more effectively than the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian here in DC.

More poignant were the displays bearing witness to our government's broken treaties, the concerted efforts to erase Native American culture and the wanton slaughter of Indians in shameful episodes such as the massacre at Wounded Knee.

There was a quote on the wall from Sitting Bull. I wish I had written it down, but the gist is that the Indians had been forced to give concession after concession on territory, laws and customs, but that "the White Man would not be satisfied 'til every last one of us has perished from the earth."

The Holocaust of World War II was still fresh in my mind, having several months ago visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Though it had occurred to me before, the Cody museum really drove home how little we as a nation have come to terms with this period. We fought a war over slavery, revisited in the civil rights marches of the 1960s. But we are largely silent about the treatment of the Indian. In school, we talked much more of the plight of the Jews in Europe than the condition of Native Americans here at home.

Where once they were plentiful in this part of the world, I can't recall seeing a single one during my visit. We can split hairs over whether the actions of our government constituted genocide. But surely we can do a better job in our schools of portraying, without propaganda or whitewash,the details of this ugly chapter in our history.

The next day, we visited a complimentary, but entirely different, take on this era called the Historic Trail Town. It's a bit random, but somehow they've taken log cabins, wagons, firearms and other relics and re-assembled them as a one-stop tribute to frontier life. While it's a hodgepodge, the place is very tactile. That's the way I like to see history -- buildings you can walk into and relics displayed the way they were rather than locked beyond glass cases. The 25 buildings, dating from 1879 to 1901, include a schoolhouse, trapper's cabin, general store and saloon. The latter, by the way, is the Rivers Saloon, once frequented by the likes of the Sundance Kid; there are bullet holes in the wooden door from the many gun battles started there. We also saw the hideout of the Hole in the Wall Gang, which included Sundance and other outlaws, as well as the cabin of Curley, the Crow Indian scout of General Custer who survived the battle of Little Big Horn. The western end of the Trail Town includes a number of graves. Among them is the grave of the notorious John Jeremiah "Liver Eating" Johnston, who is believed to have earned his nickname by killing, scalping and eating the livers of the Indians who killed his wife.

From there, we began our way back to Yellowstone. This time, however, we made a detour to the northeast in order to enter the park via the breathtaking Beartooth Highway. I'd read that Charles Kuralt called it "the most beautiful drive in America," and it didn't disappoint.

I've taken roads that go under the mountains or alongside them. But this was my first time on a road that trailed through a mountain's highest elevation. The highway reaches heights of 10,947 feet and is the highest road in the Northern Rockies. The Beartooth traces a series of steep zigzags and switchbacks, rising from 5,200 to 8,000 feet in a matter of 12 miles, all in the most daring landscapes, with glaciers and patches of snow along the way.

Our destination for the day was a hike into the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley, which is rightfully dubbed "America's Serengeti." At this time, I should point out that while I like to hike, I am by no means an expert. I have never taken an overnight hike, for example, nor have I been anyplace so wild that it required a bushwhack. This hike was labeled "moderate" -- good for our speed -- and once again, it was a gorgeous day, sunny with a cool breeze.

Now, I know that markers consisting of a pile of stones are important in hiking. They even have a name, which I don't remember. In addition to not knowing the name, more importantly, I don't know what they signify. Thus, when my father and I reached a fork in the road, and I saw the stone pile on the path leading to our left, I assumed that meant the left path was the way to go.

I was wrong.

About an hour later, after coming to a dead end, we were back to the fork. (Note to self: Next time you see that pile of stones on a hike, don't go that way.) Now confident that we were heading in the right direction, we soon came upon a sight that gave us pause. In the tall grass lay an animal skeleton. Picked clean to the bone and gleaming in hot sun, it was probably the remains of a young calf. Did I mention that there was not a single other hiker in sight?

It is interesting how quickly we become instant experts when we travel, fooled by a few tidbits gleaned from guides and tour books into thinking we really know what we're doing. Thus, my father and I became Cliff Clavins of the veldt. When we passed a lone buffalo grazing high on a bluff, I said to my father, "Must be a male." We were certain that the bird circling above us was an osprey, even though we'd both seen our first just days before. And if a bear came upon us, we were prepared: Talk loud, don't run, don't make eye contact and don't crouch down under any circumstances. Would it work? Who knew, but we were ready.

Or so we thought. Thankfully, the up-close-and-personal encounter that ensued was not with a bear, but a buffalo. As the trail led upwards, a creek gurgling below us, we quickly realized that the bison we spotted on the bluff earlier was stalking us from afar. The creek to our right, we looked up to our left to find our friend staring down at us.

"Must be a male," my Dad said.

The buffalo walked down slowly, and we moved forward. When he reached our path at the bottom of the hill, the buffalo faced a critical moment of decision -- critical for us, that is. He looked at us, looked away, looked at us again , looked away again...and finally wandered off in the other direction toward a grazing herd.

We moved on. The hill leveled off to reveal a vast, grassy plain. We came within 15 feet of a beautiful pronghorn antelope that was, like most of the animals we encountered, grazing alone ("Male?" we both wondered).

About 2 miles in from the start of our walking path, we spotted a foreboding sight in the distance. As we got closer, it came into focus: a huge lone buffalo -- yes, male -- resting regally right in the center of the hiking trail. It was like he was guarding the pass. And he showed no signs whatsoever of wanting to move.

We entertained the idea of heading back, but there were also bison behind us, and there was no guarantee that we wouldn't get the same treatment from them. We decided to stand still and wait it out. The brief clash of wills between Brownstein and bison is captured in the video below. Initially, we thought we were in Very Big Trouble. The buffalo got up and made his way right for us. As he got closer, and we stayed still, the animal, for whatever reason, balked. It headed up the hill and off the path, leaving us to continue onward.

All told, we made it about 4 miles into a 9 mile trail before heading back. On our return, we finally ran into fellow travelers, a group of four middle-aged Germans.

"Have you seen any beers?" one of them asked. From the accent, it wasn't clear if he was talking about wildlife or the nearest Hoffbrauhaus.

Back on the main road, we saw a huge herd of bison bathing in the river. As I snapped some photos, I overhead people talking about another grizzly siting. It was the same story as before: A grizzly, a bison kill, the bear resting on top of the carcass. Actually, the ranger back in Hayden had mentioned something about this sighting several days before. It was supposed to be much closer to the road than the one we saw previously.

So we drove 12 miles or so, where we were slowed down by a caravan of parked vehicles and looky-loos at the side of the road. And there it was, a huge grizzly, this time in plain view. But I barely got a good look before a group of young onlookers -- read "morons" -- decided to move up a hill closer to the bear to get a better view. Mind you, the rangers were at this point so concerned about the proximity of the bear to the crowd that they were carrying rifles.

"Get back!" the ranger yelled. "Get down from there!"

Within moments, the bear dramatically rose up from its quarry and began moving at a quick clip closer to the crowd.

This was too much for the rangers, who sounded the alarm. "Everyone, back in your vehicles! Immediately. Now. Get back in your vehicles and head out!"

It took a while for the crowd to disperse. It wasn't until well after we'd made our way west to Mammoth Hot Springs that I realized that, in all the excitement, I had not gotten a single clear photo of the bear. But there is one, which serves only to prove I was there. Blown up to about 15 times its normal size, you can definitely make out the grizzly.

There are times, of course, when it's better to use your imagination.

More to come.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Geyser Country: Where the Buffalo Roam, and Sometimes Fall In

"The Park is just a howling wilderness of three thousand square miles, full of all imaginable freaks of a fiery nature."
--Rudyard Kipling

"The hidden pool is nice and cool."

We fell asleep in the tiny burg of West Yellowstone to the sound of wolves plaintively crooning in a nearby sanctuary. The next day, a little pressed for time, we raced to our morning "ranger walk" near Castle Geyser, in the vicinity of Old Faithful.

You really shouldn't rush Yellowstone. If the wondrous sites of wildlife ambling on the sides of the roads aren't enough to drive that point home, the park offers subtle reminders, such as the collection of signs that trail, Burma-Shave like, from the southern entrance of the park:

You saw wildlife
From afar
Until they crashed
Into Your Car
Slow down!

We arrived, a little breathless, just as our ranger was describing how geysers worked. I wish I could tell you I retained the information, but all I seem to remember is that it has something to do with a giant underground volcano. One day, sometime before the Earth is swallowed up by the Sun or 1,000 years from now -- whichever comes first -- the volcano is going to erupt and all hell's gonna break lose. There was also something about plate tectonics and a bit about seismic activity.

For those of you looking for something authoritative, let me refer, once again, to the Rough Guide: The magma created by the volcano boils water deep underground. Sometimes, the water flows unrestricted, cooling off before it reaches the surface. This creates hot springs. But geysers are formed when there's a constriction in the underground plumbing that prevents the water from reaching the surface to cool. The geysers erupt when the groundwater, held down by fissures and narrow channels, forms bubbles that literally blow the water through vents at the top.

And....they're really cool...if you can call anything that reaches temperatures of several hundred degrees, causing instant destruction, cool.

This was the first of three free ranger walks we engaged in, and it was a wonderful introduction to the landscape. Our guide, who reminded me very much of Rick Moranis from "Ghostbusters," got wonderfully geeked out on the subject, peppering his talk with cautionary tales of hapless humans and other creatures that were unlucky enough to fall in these fiery furnaces. Those that plunged to their deaths included bison, a dog, even a Belgian. The rangers gave these geysers playful nicknames like "Bison Stew" and "Hot Dog." (Tastefully, they refrained from naming the pit where the Belgian met his untimely end "Belgian Waffle.")

This brings me to an important point about Yellowstone. There is a fine line, and perhaps a slippery slope, between getting blissed out about the park and immersing yourself in its many mysteries, and being a Complete and Utter Boob. For example, when my girlfriend visited Yellowstone, a tourist dipped his hand in one of the geysers to test the temperature of the water. If you follow the links on YouTube from my bear video, you will find an unintentionally hilarious clip of a family that taunted a black bear until it charged their car and began pawing at the window and chewing on the side mirror; of course, they laughed hysterically the whole time as if they were on some neat ride at Busch Gardens. I tried to exercise good judgment -- I don't think I behaved like a Total Jackass -- but it wasn't until after I shot about 200 photos of a bison herd near the Tetons that I closely read the caveats about how they sometimes charge without warning, 2,000 pounds of horned beast hurtling at you at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour.

This will all become important later in the story.

Back to the ranger walk, where our guide was telling us, "If you're not careful, you might be unlucky enough to have a geyser named after you."

Once again, we were blessed with uncanny luck. As we arrived for the walk, the colossal Grand Geyser began spouting in a series of powerful bursts of water and steam for about 20 minutes. Grand only spouts twice a day, and people are known to wait hours for it to work its magic. Nearby Castle Geyser also went off, blowing silica from a large fortress-like cauldron into a pool streaked in orange, black and yellow flames. In a three-hour period, the predictable but less interesting Old Faithful did her stuff. And just as we were about to leave, I overheard a ranger in the Visitor's Center mention in hushed tones that Beehive, an unpredictable geyser and the one our guide called his favorite, was about to go off in a matter of minutes.

We raced there just in time: Beehive doesn't look like much when inactive, but due to its tight cone and powerful plumbing, it is able to force a narrow spray as high as 200 feet with a noise that sounds like the roaring of a jet engine.

From Old Faithful country, we took a slight detour. Devoted readers of this blog (all five of you) will know that I'm a fan of the water, the more exotic the better. There are two places in and around the park where you can swim in rivers warmed by nearby thermal springs -- both named, somewhat misleadingly, Boiling River.

With good reason, there are rare opportunities for full immersion in this wild park, and I longed to, literally, dive right in.

The first Boiling River is just up from a huge waterfall beneath Firehole Canyon Drive. When I say the name is misleading, that is because the water is initially quite freezing. It takes a few steps before you feel the warmth of the current -- and even that is more like your average swimming pool than a jacuzzi. The current is also not what it appears to be. It looks quite tame until the moment you're in it, and then you're holding on to jagged rocks for dear life for fear of being carried down the river...well, faster than you'd like to be. I was very grateful for my new sandals, and was quickly able to find a quiet place just out of the river's pull. My dad decided to sit this one out. In fact, there were very few people there at all -- a facet of the trip that surprised me pretty consistently.

I took some time to soak it all up, not just the river, but the beauty of this place, the clear water, the sound of the nearby falls, and the mountains rising in the distance amid the faint smell of pine. There are scant moments in life when we sense the compression of time, of life shrinking to a moment and being aware of only that moment, like children at play. It felt, to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, like I had dipped my head in magic waters.

But there was more to see, from the gurgling mud of Fountain Paint Pots to streams that hissed and flowed orange like some tributary in the depths of hell. I loved the cobalt blue of Sapphire Pool. It had the look of some forbidden destination out of Greek mythology, with its disarmingly benign color masking its deadly power. I wondered if anyone had fallen in, mesmerized by its beauty.

We spent the night at the nondescript Grant Village. The next morning, we headed for the fertile Hayden Valley and another early morning ranger walk. As the sun was rising, we stopped to see (and listen to) a grunting pack of bison, the first of many encounters with the plentiful herds in this area.

Some of the best moments of the day occurred on the drive over. There was a mischievous caravan of bison, evenly spaced on the road from Fishing Bridge to Hayden like they were in some kind of military formation. And there was the breathtaking sight of a solitary male bison bathing in a river beneath shady trees and leaping onto land.

Our walk taught us some interesting facts about the mating practices of the elk and bison in the area. Bison, for example, will often fight over a single female. The male travels alone, we were told; a bison traveling alone will almost never be female. The females stay with the herd, caring for the young and the less mature males. The male elk, by contrast, enjoy something like a harem, traveling and mating with many females at once. I suppose it's low-hanging fruit to note, at this point, that while I retained next to nothing on the mechanics of geysers, I absorbed plentiful detail on the mating habits of Yellowstone's wildlife. Talk amongst yourselves.

This was fascinating, but very quickly preempted by a newsflash: We were informed that less than a mile to the south, a grizzly was laying on top of a fresh bison kill just across the river from the main road. The ranger told us we were free to leave the walk and come back later if we wished. A good many of us, including my father and I, took him up on it.

From a distance of about 300 yards, it was difficult to see. My trusty camera has many virtues, but a powerful telephoto capability is not one of them. My dad brought binoculars, and the bear was clearly visible, but difficult to see because of a)the distance b)the tall grass and c)the fact that it was not moving.

When we rejoined the walk, the ranger told us this was common behavior for the grizzly. After killing the bison, it will lay on top of it to protect the kill from scavengers like wolves and competing predators like other grizzlies. With 2,000 pounds of meat underneath it, a grizzly could feed contentedly for several days, leaving only for the occasional pit stop and to fend off the competition.

As we made our way to lunch at the lodge on Lake Yellowstone, we were halted for about 20 minutes by a bison that evidently confused itself with a pace car, or was merely toying with us. For many miles, it stayed in the right lane without veering, trotting nobly and indifferently ahead of the traffic.

At one stop, I saw what would have been a fantastic photo opportunity which I, with great restraint, decided not to pursue because it probably would have ended with me getting gored by a bison. I spotted about a dozen buffalo laying in and around a circular hot spring. There was something very humorous about this lazy picture. The bison looked like they could have been in Boca Raton talking about Mahjong.

But there was a whole herd separating me from that vision, and I had to let it go.

More to come.