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South Dakota in a day

And Devil's Tower


View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

We left Thermopolis after a morning dip in the hot springs on June 2nd to make our way across Wyoming to Devil's Tower, the famous mashed potato sculpture seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only a short distance from the Black Hills of South Dakota. The tower is such a shock, rising vertically out of the prairie, that it's no wonder the Native Americans in the area considered it sacred and connected it to several myths, mostly involving giant bears. The weather on this particular day lent an atmospheric helping hand to the ominous power of it; as we set out on the trail around the perimeter of the tower, some of the most terrifying storm clouds I've ever seen began to loom over our heads, with lightning flashing frequently enough for the two of us to emphatically decide to head back to the car, and never mind the trail. Walking around Devil's Tower is probably not worth being killed in a giant electrical storm.

Near the tower on the surrounding prairie, however, PRAIRIE DOGS!

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MEEP MEEP MEEP! We could have watched/listened to them all day. Forget meerkats (though I'm sure they're lovely); they should make a TV show about these little critters. And they had babies! PRAIRIE PUPPIES! I made sure to drive well under the speed limit because I'm not sure if there is anything worse I could do in my life than run over a baby prairie dog.

The storm was right on our tail, however, so eventually we had to drag ourselves away.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Devils Tower
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We flew southward on straight, empty highways ahead of the awful stormfront, while weather reports warned of violent gusts of wind, hail, and impending doom. I think Matt has some pictures of the storm that he will upload at a later date, but trust me, we were being chased by the Nothing. Luckily, only a light, tense rain had begun to fall when we finally pulled into the driveway of Historic Log Cabins, a "Ma and Pa operated motel" in Hot Springs, and as it turned out, the storm blew northward again, so the Magnum was spared any hail dents. The proprietors of the cabins are evidently obsessed with Christmas, as the whole place is decorated with various items of Christmas paraphernalia. Staying in a wee little log cabin was super cozy -- it was a bit like we were kids playing house -- but I felt right at home, since the ceilings were the same height as those in the basement apartment I used to occupy in my mum's house in Sydney i.e. very low. I loved it. I would absolutely live in a tiny log cabin so long as I had a barn with HVAC for all the music instruments next door.

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Notice in the second picture above that we have nearly filled an entire second row of magnets on the Magnum by this stage.

Time out: so, this is really confusing, and it took me a while to get it straight in the planning process, so I should probably devote a quick paragraph to it: Hot Springs, South Dakota, as shown above, is a town just south of the Black Hills that has a really awesome mammoth fossil excavation site. Mammoth Hot Springs, however, is a stop on the loop road in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, and as far as I know, does not contain a mammoth. And Hot Springs State Park is in Thermopolis, Wyoming the town where we actually bathed in hot springs that morning. They have dinosaurs there, not mammoths. Good? One of the things I learned on the trip is that America is not so good at unique place names.

On June 3, we woke up fresh and well-rested to a beautiful morning in South Dakota. Our task: see as much of the state as we possibly could in a single day, and be on the other side of it by bedtime. Stop one: the aforementioned Mammoth Site, an active fossil dig containing the remains of 59 mammoths (and counting) who were daft enough to fall into a mud sinkhole. They have similar programs to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, though it does seem they have managed to tap into more funding -- the whole site is housed under a pavilion, so you're actually digging indoors, which must be nice. I sort of prefer the authentic Jurassic Park feel of the dig in Thermopolis, not to mention the fact that dinosaurs trump mammoths. The coolest thing about mammoth remains is that they're dealing with actual bone, rather than fossilized bone.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Hot Springs, SD
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There's something really very sad about the theory - for which I think there's ample evidence - that mammoths are extinct because early humans butchered too many of them. One of the exhibits there is a replica mammoth bone hut constructed of an ungodly amount of bones. It looks like something out of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, enlarged. Human beings can be pretty terrible.

After mammoths, it was time to whip through Wind Cave National Park to the land where obsessive men blast human likenesses into mountains: Crazy Horse Memorial and, of course, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the most deeply American thing in the whole world. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by the Crazy Horse visitor center, which is a sprawling museum and market for Native American art and crafts. It turns out the memorial was conceived with the full cooperation of the area tribe; I thought I'd read somewhere that it was just a misguided Polack who had no connection whatsoever to the natives. Among the other scuptures by Korczak Ziolkowski on display was a larger-than-life bust of Paderewski; I am ashamed to admit that I knew of him only as a musician and had no idea he was also Prime Minister of Poland at one point and an all-round national hero.

By chance, we had arrived at Crazy Horse on the one weekend of the year when visitors are allowed to climb up the mountain and dance about on the statue's outstretched arm. If we'd had more time, we might have attempted it, but from what I could tell, it was a fair hike (nothing like Half Dome, but more than we were prepared to handle).

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Crazy Horse and Rushmore
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Mount Rushmore, basically right around the corner, was ... I dunno. I've always thought the whole idea of dynamiting presidents - or anyone - into the side of a mountain was a bit insane and arrogant. Then again, I thought Egypt was pretty cool, and if insane and arrogant doesn't describe the pharaohs and their monuments, I don't know what does. In any case, there it was, massive and ridiculous, the only National Park Service site in the country with an $11 parking garage fee (not covered by the National Parks Passport). AMURRIKA!

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This was actually on sale in their gift store. Derp.

Our day was not done. We had one last stop before making the sprint eastward toward the border: Deadwood. No, we didn't go because of the HBO show, although we enjoyed the first season years ago. Husband Matt has an actual ancestral connection to the place! This is exciting to me because I've never had the pleasure of an ancestral connection to any place: I grew up so far removed from Greece and China, and records are generally so poorly kept there (in very difficult languages, to boot), that the idea of exploring my family's geneology is laughable. But sometime in the late nineteenth century, forebears on Matt's mother's side of the family with the last name Chapman passed through Deadwood, South Dakota, and on the way, at least one child died and was buried in the famous Mount Moriah Cemetery, which also contains the remains of -- you guessed it -- Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. We searched the registry and discovered two children with the last name Chapman buried in a single plot, but the headstone is lost, so we anticlimactically snapped a picture of a section of grass (another of Matt's shots). No matter -- it's still cool.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Deadwood, SD
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We sped toward the moon as it rose over a pink twilight sky. Suddenly, thwack! Thwack! Thwack! As the sun set, the insects came out. Swarms of insects, smacking into our windshield at 90 miles per hour. It was worse than anything we'd encountered anywhere else in the country, even the Everglades. I'm not exaggerating: it sounded like heavy rain. Some of the insects had so much mass they reverberated like rocks hitting the car. They'd bounce off the roof on their way over. I've never seen anything like it.

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It was impossible to get a good picture of the carnage -- this was after I had squeegeed some of the insects off. As Matt said, it's the only time he's ever had so many dead bugs on the front of the car, that it smelled like dead bugs. It was brutal.

Mind you, while we were stopped at the gas station, we saw a dented SUV with a missing headlamp that had just hit a deer. There are worse things to kill on the road than bugs.

We grabbed dinner around 10PM at a little place called Murdo Drive-In: they're super-friendly and make a delicious burger and milkshake. If I lived anywhere nearby, I'd be there every day. This might be sacriligious to say, but they may even rival In-N-Out.

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I can't even really remember pulling into a motel somewhere outside of Sioux Falls.

Posted by mormolyke 20:18 Archived in USA Tagged hot_springs mammoth rushmore wyoming south_dakota devils_tower crazy_horse deadwood mount_rushmore murdo prairie_dogs Comments (0)

DINOSAUR DIG!

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day

sunny 80 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

I have already gushed on this blog about how excited I was for June 1. In fact, when people asked me what I was most looking forward to on the roadtrop, digging for dinosaurs in Wyoming topped the list. I guess I never truly got over the paleontology phase I went through as a kid, and neither did Matt, as demonstrated a few years ago when we spent some time in L.A. and discovered the La Brea Tar Pits, which instantly became the coolest thing in that city. I'm pretty sure that if I had grown up there rather than Brisbane, I would have been all over those pits all summer long, and who knows what I'd be doing with my life right now.

[Aside: It's not a huge stretch from paleontology to archaeology; both Matt and I also went through Egyptology phases as kids, and we revisited that obsession in 2010 on our last big vacation.]

We left Yellowstone National Park for the charmingly named Thermopolis the night before, hoping to arrive sometime before midnight. On the way, we passed through the impossibly scenic Yellowstone Valley just outside of the park. The stunning sunset over Wapiti was distracting enough to make driving quite dangerous, so we pulled over to take pictures.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone Valley
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Dinner was a quick stop in Cody at a restaurant called Terrace; we were feeling adventurous, so tried a summer grill platter of meats neither of us had ever eaten before: elk bratwurst, semi boneless quail, and grilled rabbit, along with a bacon sage stuffing and braised red cabbage.

Elk. I ate elk. That will teach them to run in front of my car late at night.

While we were eating, I tried to sort out some accommodation for the night, and took a chance on the Coachman Inn Motel, which is "within walking distance of everything in the town of Thermopolis." This is because the entire town of Thermopolis is about a mile and a half end-to-end, but no matter! They also promised reasonable rates, clean rooms, and a FREE HOT WAFFLE BREAKFAST BUFFET! Sold. I called their number to book the room, and when the proprietor heard that we didn't intend to pull in until after 11PM, he wasn't phased. "No problem. I will leave your key in an envelope taped to the front door of the office, and we'll settle up in the morning, OK?" Wow. I guess we don't even need to lock our car doors around here.

The waffles were delicious, and we were soon on our way excitedly to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, wondering what we should expect. Would there be many other diggers like us? Would the place be swarming with children? Would we be kidnapped and sold into paleontological slavery?

No, on all counts. I guess with the center being so remote, they only have one or two family groups digging each day during the summer, and since June 1 was early in the season, it was just us. Perfect! Our guide and instructor was Amanda, a junior in geology from Minnesota, assisted by intern Angela, who is double-majoring in geology and mathematics in Tennessee (I think). They drove us a short distance up the hill from the center itself to the quarry, explaining along the way that there are more fossils in the ground here than they have the funding or resources to dig up. My god, if I had grown up in Wyoming, my family would never have been able to grow a lawn; I would be digging in my backyard every damn day, hoping for a stegosaurus. Stegosaurus was my favorite dinosaur when I was eight.

At the site, we were shown around an in situ excavation containing whole skeletons and footprints, and then introduced to our active site next door. The whole area used to be the shore of a lake during the Jurassic period, and the fossils are contained in a layer of mudstone formed from the lake silt. Fossils found seem to be the remains of allosaurs and apatosaurs, and it is speculated that this was a feeding area where the vicious theropods preyed upon their large herbivorous cousins. OK, instantly this site became cooler than Dinosaur State Park in Texas to my inner eight-year-old; these were not little-known species I don't really remember from my dinophiliac days. Everyone has heard of allosaurus and apatosaurus. These are heavy hitters.

We were each handed a bucket, a blunted oyster knife, a paintbrush, and a dustpan and brush, given a quick lecture about how to recognize bone and what to do if we found any, and we set to work. The first surprise was how familiar the action of excavating felt. Last year, we tuck-pointed our field stone basement ourselves, and I'll be damned if I didn't have flashbacks to those long weekends, crouched on the basement foor with very similar tools, excavating old crumbly mortar from the cracks in the wall. My muscles already knew exactly what to do. The only things missing were the Shop Vac and the musty odor of cat litter.

After maybe ten minutes, as I scraped away putty-colored mudstone from the side of the quarry, a rocky chunk fell out, revealing something carbon-black stuck in the ground. What. Is. That. Oh. My. God.

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That, my friends, is a goddamn ALLOSAURUS FOSSIL, and a fairly sizeable one, apparently - enough to warrant classification as a 'bone' rather than merely a 'fragment.' When a fossil is found, their practice is to label it and leave it in place for later excavation, so we couldn't just yank it out to see exactly what it was, but the curve of it was interesting enough for Amanda to get a bit excited. In this dig they have yet to find an allosaurus skull: could this be part of an orbital? Another center employee who dropped in thought it was more likely a cervical rib. Either way, holy crap, that is so freaking cool. Amanda also accidentally discovered that the rocky chunk that fell out encased yet more allosaurus fossil - again, we couldn't just break it apart, so its exact nature will remain a mystery until further work is done, but it was classified as a fragment because it was probably less than ten centimeters long.

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Above: my finds, replaced and labeled. The bone was the 300th found on the site, which is called "Cheryl's Blind" or CB for short (after a hapless worker who drove some equipment over fossils there once), hence the label "CB300."

I was kind of relieved when Matt, working a couple of feet away, called out only a few minutes later - another find! The experience of finding something myself was so awesome, I didn't want to be the only one blessed with dumb luck. Matt found not one, but two bones in the next hour; both were classified as fragments because of their size, but the second one was pretty sweet: Amanda speculated that it could possibly be a complete chevron from one of the vertebrae.

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Obviously, we thought, we would not be able to take any of the bones home with us. Of course not! This is science! But then we were told, that if we found tiny fragments that were too small to be identified anatomically -- otherwise known as "floaters" -- we were in fact allowed to pocket them. Matt found one of these, maybe the size of a hazelnut, and it currently has pride of place in our tchotchke cabinet in the dining room.

Hours more of tireless digging didn't turn up anything else, but as far as we were concerned, we had gotten what we came for, and the rest was just gravy. Honestly, if I were independently wealthy, I would come here all summer long and pay to dig there every damn day. We wrapped up around 3:30PM and then were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the warehouse and laboratory back at the center. I'm not sure if I can tell you how I felt when I saw that the warehouse contains a complete stegosaurus skeleton ready to be mounted.

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SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

The open-to-the-public museum is also probably the best dinosaur fossil collection I've ever seen, including plenty of actual fossils as well as resin replicas, such as one of Stan the tyrannosaurus. You know that heart-sinking moment when you find out that nearly all of the dinosaur skeletons you see at museums are replicas? That was like finding out the truth about Santa Claus for me. But, more than two decades later, finally seeing (and digging up) actual fossils was like getting to visit the North Pole and hang out with elves. Science elves.

(This is also comparable to the moment when I finally got to see Tutankhamun's face mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, after being totally scammed at the Franklin here in Philly.)

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day
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The next day, we partook of the town's hot springs, choosing Hellie's Tepee Pools on the recommendation of a woman we met at breakfast. The outdoor hot pools with jets are wonderful to soak in, if you can get past the stink of sulfur. I'm not sure if I noticed any particular healing power in the water, but I guess half an hour isn't long enough for the magical crystal healing or whatever to sink in. It felt good. That's good enough.

Posted by mormolyke 01:17 Archived in USA Tagged accommodation dinosaurs wyoming cody yellowstone_valley thermopolis Comments (1)

Yellowstone National Park

And Grand Teton

semi-overcast 65 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

On the morning of Wednesday, May 30, I was overjoyed to discover that the (post-Half Dome) pain in my legs had finally subsided. A stress-free night and a good sleep, and my calf muscles were almost good as new.

I have to give a shout out here to my calf compression sleeves. I get shin splints pretty badly, which is one of the reasons I tend to be sedentary. Before this trip, I was determined to figure out how to deal with them, and came across compression sleeves as a preventative measure. Good god, why didn't anyone tell me about these before? Not only did they completely eliminate my shin splints for the entire roadtrop, they helped with overall calf muscle fatigue. I'm a fan for life, even if they do make me look like I'm wearing knee-high socks in the summer. I have a pair by Zensah and a cheap pair of neoprene sleeves I picked up on eBay; both work equally well, but the neoprene ones are kind of gross when I peel them off.

These things are win.

These things are win.

Anyway, enough of that. It was time for a visually stunning drive into Wyoming, through Grand Teton National Park, and into the mother of all parks, Yellowstone, complete with its terrifying grizzly bears and ability to basically destroy human civilization instantly should it choose to erupt. I thought when I was planning this trip that Grand Teton's mountains would scare the shit out of me, because I'm generally nervous around mountains. I come from the flattest country on earth, where the tallest mountains barely qualify as hills in this country. When the earth is nearly vertical for miles, I get a little uneasy. But it seems my Yosemite exploits have cured me of this feeling, at least temporarily. Actually, at some point, I remember wondering, "When am I going to stop swaggering and sneering at everything? When is the feeling that I'm King Shit because I climbed Half Dome going to wear off?"

That's not to say that the Tetons didn't take my breath away. They are some right proper mountains.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Idaho Falls & Grand Teton
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The Tetons also apparently have the support of a lot of very rich people. The nearby village of Jackson was much bigger than we thought it would be, and felt very much like a resort town for the upper middle class plus. In fact, we found out later than Harrison Ford lives there, which didn't surprise us at all. The National Park's Visitor Center is without a doubt the nicest, swankiest visitor center we visited on the trip, which is saying a lot, because we've been into a lot of visitor centers.

Eventually, after navigating a lot of closed roads (both parks weren't officially "in season" yet, so there was still a lot of winter repair roadwork being done, which meant we couldn't drive around Jenny Lake *sadface*), we made it to THE SUPERVOLCANO.

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By now, you are almost certainly sick of me saying WOW THIS PLACE IS AMAZING, but WOW THIS PLACE IS AMAZING. This was one of the first sights that greeted us as we started on the Loop Road, next to Yellowstone Lake. It didn't seem real. It still doesn't. As Matt said at the time, "This is like cheating at photography."

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Our campsite was a right turn, but we turned left instead to see our first geyser eruption: Old Faithful.

Yellowstone was kind enough to put on a show for us. After watching Old Faithful, we wandered around the sulfur-odorous geyser basin taking pictures of the brightly colored bacteria* ...

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone
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... when suddenly, whoosh! A random geyser in the basin erupted.

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And then, a few moments later, another! This eruption was even larger than Old Faithful and went on for such a long time that Matt was able to get close to it even though we were some distance away.

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Yes, that's my Matt there right next to the geyser, while all the other observers stay about three yards back. He got wet. But he was pretty happy about it.

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Turns out this third water spout was the Beehive Geyser, which erupts on a very unpredictable schedule that can vary from eight hours to a day. Thanks, Beehive Geyser!

Next, we were on a mission to see some bison, so we drove the (very) long way back to our campsite around Yellowstone's loop road, and were duly rewarded:

My video of buffalo fording a stream.

And OMG baby buffalo!

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We spent the night at Bridge Bay campground, where we were informed that bears will not break into cars. This seems counter to what we were told at Yosemite, which is that bears will rip your car apart, leading to thousands of dollars of damage. And Yellowstone bears are meaner! I have no idea what to believe, but I kept my bear spray strapped to my hip.

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Actually, we have christened these "bear blasters" after Powerthirst:

If I had a million dollars right now, I'd start a bear spray company and call it Bear Blaster.

However, despite all our precautions, we did not see a single bear the entire time we were in Yellowstone -- indeed, since I am writing this after the fact, I can report that we did not see one during the entire trip. I am not very disappointed by this. I read too many bear attack stories during preparation.

The next day was spent on a more leisurely trip around the Loop Road, seeing all of the typical touristy sights Yellowstone has to offer to the intrepid traveler willing to venture onto a supervolcano in bumfuck. Here be bubbling mud volcanos and bizarre terrace formations spewing the fetid stench of brimstone, and a gorgeous canyon with multiple waterfalls that required us to once again climb a lot of stairs to view. Unfortunately, climbing Half Dome a few days earlier had not made us instantly fit. Damnit.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone
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That last line of thumbnails contains shots from Norris, the "hottest" geyser basin in Yellowstone, and the area which most made me remember that this location could at any moment trigger the apocalypse. While here, we met a hilarious Chinese tourist couple who pulled up in their RV and upon seeing us, immediately asked: "What is a geyser?" It turns out they had somehow traveled to Yellowstone without doing any prior research whatsoever -- apparently a regular occurence for them, since they seemed astounded by my rudimentary knowledge.
"How do you know so much?"
"Umm, I like to read about national parks."
"Wow, you read a lot."
"(Not really.)"

A few minutes later, we saw the male half of the couple, Ray (he gave us his business card -- he is a "Representative for Celebrities and Entrepreneurs"!), bounding across the geyser basin toward a steaming hole in the ground. He was not on the boardwalk. He was clambering over the thin crust of the basin. The thin crust surrounded with warning signs not to walk upon it, because sometimes it collapses and causes the errant walker to fall into waiting holes of boiling water and die (so I have read). This has happened to tourists in the past, and we thought for a moment that we might be witness to this horror.

"Tell him to get back! He could die! Quick!"
His girlfriend yelled out some panicked Mandarin and he returned to us, grinning while we tried to impress upon him the importance of not running off the boardwalk to peer into geyser blowholes.

After we returned from our boardwalk stroll in the drizzle, he approached us again. "Where are you going next? We'll go with you. You can show us. You know a lot. Do you know where we can see bears? We want to see bears."

Unfortunately, we could not take him up on this offer of companionship, as we were on our way out of the park to our next exciting destination: Thermopolis, home of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. We said our goodbyes. I hope they survived.

  • N.B. I used my PowerShot's "Super Vivid" mode for these pictures. Because, if you take a look at any pictures of these bacteria pools by professional photographers, you'll notice that they all mess with the saturation. If they can cheat, I can totally cheat too.

Posted by mormolyke 17:36 Archived in USA Tagged geysers yellowstone wyoming old_faithful bison norris mammoth_hot_springs grand_teton Comments (0)

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