Tour de Smithies: Olympia Style

Sarah and Me in Olympia

Sarah and Me in Olympia

The Boys!  Elliot, Emerson, and Van

The Boys! Elliot, Emerson, and Van

Rolling into Olympia, Washington, we continued our pattern of staying with friends from my days at Smith College.  Anyone who knows me even slightly knows how much I absolutely loved Smith and how much I love my friends from Smith.  Apparently, the love doesn’t go one way.  Our incredibly generous friends Sarah and Scott (and their lovely and energetic sons, Emerson and Elliot) invited us to stay for an extended period.  They hosted us for a record eight nights.  Yes, you read that right – EIGHT nights!  They should be sainted.

Love these peeps!

Love these peeps!

It was so incredibly wonderful to have a bed to sleep in, a shower to use, access to laundry facilities, and to not have to worry about the weather.  But more than that, Sarah and Scott are a walking party.  Literally.  We haven’t socialized that much since…I can’t even remember!  We attended a total of four parties that week – and Sarah and Scott attended two additional parties (for a wedding) – so we were seriously not keeping up.  It was such a fantastic change of pace.  But, even better, I got to spend some excellent quality time with a wonderful friend who I haven’t seen in ages and her equally awesome husband.  And Van had the chance to play with the big boys and all of their exciting toys.  I think he was most excited by having a table to sit at that was just his size.  Mental note for when we no longer live out of a tent.

Festivities in Olympia

Festivities in Olympia

Between the parties, we had the chance to check out a bunch of different places in the area.  We hit up the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge and the Farmers’ Market with our friends, and when they were busy at work, we headed to Gig Harbor, Bremerton, Bainbridge Island, the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial, the Foulweather Bluff Preserve at the northern end of the Kitsap Peninsula, and the Olympia Hands-On Children’s Museum.

We also spent a day in Seattle exploring and were lucky enough to meet up with Sarah in the afternoon so she could show us around.  On our very last day in Olympia, Sarah, Scott, and the boys accompanied us Staircase in Olympic National Park.  We took our second hike of the trip with friends (the first with another Smithie and her son, Rebekah and Rhyer), and had our very first campsite visitors.  So fun!  It reminded me just how great it is to camp with friends.  Something I hope to do lots of in the future.  Any takers?!?!

Note the bench we found on our hike – we joked that it was a casualty of the sequester.

Bench in Staircase, Olympic National Park

Bench in Staircase, Olympic National Park

Thank you Scott, Sarah, Emerson, and Elliot for an absolutely wonderful week.  We miss you all already.  Please come visit wherever we wind up settling down!!!

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Van and Elliot

Van and Elliot

The Noble Giant – Mount Rainier

Our First View of the Sleeping Giant

Our First View of the Sleeping Giant

Wildflowers, alpine meadows, gigantic old-growth trees, glaciers, deep canyons, waterfalls, snapped trees piled up to look like twigs for a giant’s bonfire, lush green forest floors, and I could go on and on.  Mount Rainier was awesome!  If someone told me that they were visiting Washington State and only had three days, I’d tell them to spend all three days at Mount Rainier – it was that amazing.

We spent our mornings hiking amongst wildflowers and through snow and our afternoons hiking amongst ferns and dripping old-growth trees.  We relaxed on the porch of a lodge in awe of the giant before us, and counted our lucky stars we were able to find a great campsite in the popular park.  Although this park doesn’t seem to suffer from the incessant traffic jams that others do (I’m thinking of you, Yellowstone), available campsites were hard to come by.  Fortunately, we found a fantastic site under towering evergreens.  The campground was filled with families on one last hurrah for the summer.

We ran into many experienced campers at the park, but two families stuck out.  The first was a family camped a few sites away, between us and the bathroom.  Each time I walked by, I marveled at the kitchen set-up that these folks had.  Somehow, out of the back of a small pick-up truck, they managed to create a luxurious compound, replete with a massive tent and intricately overhanging tarp (necessary in these wet woods), chairs for the whole fam, a regular-sized sink complete with two 5-gallon collapsible buckets to serve as a water source and a graywater tank, a waist-high drying rack, a table for other important kitchen items, cords running all over the site with kitchen implements hanging within reach over the kitchen area, and a propane stove powered by a tank the size you’d have on your backyard grill.  They win the prize for the most intricate campsite we’ve come across on this trip.

The second family outdid us all.  While were out hiking for the day, Alan came across a backpacker with an eight month-old strapped to her chest.  She had just arrived at a trailhead and was talking with other hikers.  Curious about her story, Alan overheard her explaining that she had just been out backpacking for twelve days with the wee one.  TWELVE DAYS!  Backpacking!  And it wasn’t clear that the backpacking was over for the happy family – they may have just been refueling.  Sometimes people tell us that it’s impressive that we’ve been on the road camping with a two-year old for over five months.  Do not be impressed!  We have not attempted backpacking, we haven’t even camped for twelve straight days – we always tend to take a one night break (or sometimes more) every week or so.  And we’re not camping with an eight month old!  Our little guy can walk, can tell us what he needs, and can even help out quite a bit around camp.  Twelve days.  Backpacking.  Amazing!

And so, amongst the backdrop of these extraordinary campers, we explored many nooks and crannies of this intensely beautiful park.  The glaciered peak was as imposing as it was beautiful, and hiking up its flank amongst the wildflowers was a lesson in gratitude.  Gratitude that we were able to see the peak on multiple days (a treat not granted to all park-goers given the common cloud cover), that we chose a time to visit when nature was showing off her finest colors, and that we were healthy enough to hike up, up, and up to see the massive glaciers that blanket the peak.

I’m not sure what was more beautiful, each individual wildflower or the mass of wildflowers dotting a slope.  Regardless, lupines will always be my favorite.

The massive, wet trees were a significant change from our forays through the Rockies and the Utah canyons.  Although the trees were impressive, Van’s favorite thing was to point out the ferns (which he calls “F F Terns”) and then turn over the fronds to let us know whether or not there are spores.  He can barely walk by a fern without checking for spores, which made for lengthy forest walks given the abundance of ferns in the lower elevations of the park.

John Muir said it best, “Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.”

Enjoying Some Down Time in the Idaho Panhandle

I must admit that I’ve been getting kind of burned out lately.  Burned out from living out of a car, cooking with limited supplies, sleeping on the ground, and having little or no time to myself.  Yes, I know, first world problems of the highest degree.  But, I thought I’d mention this to portray a more accurate picture of our travels (it’s not all sunshine and rainbows) and to let you know why the blog posts have been and may continue to be a little slow in coming.  I love writing about our travels and sharing our stories and photos with y’all, but I’ve started spending more time in the evenings staring at the sky and talking with Alan and less time on the blog, which is why we’re in Oregon and the blog is still trying to catch up.  I expect that will change in the future, but for now, I’m making sure to devote more time to enjoying the moment and less time to capturing it.  I suppose I could make this discussion its own blog post, but I know you are all hanging on the edge of your seats to see where we went after Glacier National Park, so without further ado…the panhandle of Idaho!

We spent a brief few days in the panhandle, devoting most of our time to exploration of Moscow, the home of the University of Idaho, and to Heyburn State Park, the wonderful park that we called home for a few nights.   The highlight of visiting Moscow, and frankly one of my highlights of our whole trip, was a brief hour we spent watching Van play with a little girl named Olivia on a playground in the center of town.  We frequent playgrounds all over, and he’s played with dozens of children, but I’ve never seen him play so well or so in sync with another child.  They were close to the same age and had a very similar temperament.  It was magical to watch them giggle, share, say please and thank you to one another, and run around with eyes bright with expectation, neither one serving as the leader or follower for longer than a couple of minutes.  It was true synchronicity.  No photos captured the moment, but I think I’m better for it.  A camera would have stood in my way of appreciating that I was witness to such joy.

Another highlight of our time in the panhandle was our exploration of Heyburn State Park.  We took walks along the waters’ edge right from our campsite, watched the sun set through the trees, and saw birds aplenty.  It was a beautiful and relaxing place to stay and a great “welcome home to camping” after six nights in Montana Motel 6s.

Confronting Fears in Glacier National Park

I may have mentioned this before, but I have two fears that I’m trying to conquer, flying in planes and bears.  This is a bummer since I love to travel and to spend time outdoors, often in bear country.  I’ve come a long, long way since the beginning of this trip, frequently camping in black bear territory without a second thought.  Although I loved spending time hiking and camping in the past, it was seldom that my enjoyment wasn’t tempered with thoughts in the back of my mind about what large, furry creature might be around the corner or over the ridge.  I’m happy to say that I now have a healthy fear of black bears that all humans should have and no longer obsess over every breaking twig or food smells that may remain around camp.  Well, Alan would probably say I still obsess a little about food smells, but I think that’s healthy for both us and the bears.

Grizzlies, my friend, are another thing entirely.  When our Eurovan came to its tragic end in Memphis, and we decided to camp with only a tent to call home, we made the agreement that when in grizzly territory, we’d stay somewhere with four walls.  Not knowing when we’d be somewhere made this all the more difficult.  You see, we were in grizzly country during high tourist season, which only lasts a couple of months.  If I were a hotel owner in an area that only sees frequent tourists during one season out of the year, you better bet that prices would be significantly higher during that season.  Not only were prices insane, most places were already booked!  So, we opted for the least expensive option that would give us four walls and a roof and stayed in Motel 6s (or as Van says, Motel Number Six) in Missoula and then in Kalispell, outside of Glacier National Park.  I could spend all day telling you our thoughts of Kalispell, but instead I’ll turn to more positive topics – our visit to Glacier.

Glacier smelled amazing!  Seriously and phenomenally amazing.  It was beautiful, no doubt, but the smells took top honors.  While we enjoyed our time in the park, it was clear that to really appreciate the park, you need to spend more than a couple of days and you need to stay within the park.  We’ve already added this to our mental list of places to which we’d like to return when Van gets older.  While there, however, we enjoyed every minute.  The views were astounding, we ate lunch in incredible settings, Van continued his routine of rock throwing to great effect, we went on several stunning and rewarding hikes, and saw wildlife aplenty – including bears!  My proudest moment was when Van hiked the farthest he’d ever hiked without assistance, a full mile and three-quarters.  He spent most of the rest of the hike enjoying his perch on Alan’s back, but hopped out again for the last half mile of the hike.  And this wasn’t a flat path – it was a serious uphill hike with plenty of obstacles for him to maneuver.  My other proud moment was hiking without obsessing over bears, even though the first sign at every trailhead encouraged hikers to carry bear spray, and we did, in fact, see three bears.

To set your mind at ease (or maybe just mine), we didn’t come across the bears while we were out hiking.  Instead, we came across gaggles of people along the side of the road with binoculars and large lenses.  Piquing our curiosity each time, we stopped and joined the fray.  On our first stop we were witness to a black bear (who was blonde – go figure) and a grizzly in different directions up a fairly steep hill.  Neither was close and I loved having the opportunity to watch them amble about.  On our second stop, we got out and quickly realized that we were only twenty-five yards from a grizzly.  Twenty-five yards!  Too close for comfort for both us and for the ranger.  We watched the bear for a few minutes before consciously realizing we were too close.  As we returned to the car, the ranger had the same idea and ordered everyone back in their cars immediately.  It’s not a good thing for bears to become habituated to people, and this sort of bear-watching at close range is just the sort of thing that can do that.

Bear!

Bear!

People!

Are we bear watching or people watching?

If you’re contemplating a trip to Glacier and are interested in seeing glaciers, I recommend that you travel here sooner rather than later.  There are far fewer glaciers in the park than there were just over a decade ago when I first visited the park.  Although the signs of glaciers are everywhere, from the steep, glacier-carved mountains to the glacier-fed lakes, the glaciers themselves are becoming smaller and smaller each year.  Although the disappearance of glaciers in this park is all but inevitable in our lifetime, the landscape that owes its beauty to these icy beasts is well worth a trek to northern Montana.

 

Would You Pay Two Bucks to See Toxic Wastewater?

On our way to Missoula from Bozeman, we stopped at two interesting sites, both at my prodding.  The first was the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park and the second was a large mining pit in Butte, Montana.  Alan and Van kindly accompanied me to the first, but Alan couldn’t fathom spending $2 a person to see a copper pit (even if it was one of the largest of its kind when it was in operation), so Van and I braved that ourselves.  Madison Buffalo Jump State Park is one of the locations at which, when bison outnumbered people on our fair continent, Native Americans would attempt to stampede bison to and over the edge of a cliff.  Upon their crashing fall, most of the bison would die, and the ones that remained alive would be put out of their misery by quick-acting hunters.  The bison would then be butchered right there, and the meat, hide, and other important parts would be laboriously carried back to their camp.  I had read about this process as a child and was fascinated.  I always wanted to see one of the jump sites and, though to the naked eye there wasn’t a whole lot to see other than the all-important cliff, it was equal parts fascinating and awe-inspiring to be in a place that extinguished and also supported so much life.

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, Montana

Madison Buffalo Jump State Park, Montana

Heading northwest towards Missoula, we stopped in Butte, a city clearly dominated by its current and former mining glory.  After picnicking right next to the open copper pit, Van and I paid our admission (it was free for the little guy) and headed through a tunnel to see the pit and the water that is slowly accumulating within.  The water is heavily acidic, with a pH of 2.5 (similar to lemon juice or cola).  The color alone is enough to warn you that this is no swimming hole.  There are major cleanup operations going on, especially to deal with the fact that the water, which is currently below bedrock and not threatening the local groundwater, is slated to reach bedrock in 2018 or thereabouts.  I could go on and on, but I’d bore all of the non-environmental lawyers or professionals out there.  As I’ve bored Alan.  Countless times.  Alan put his foot down and said no to any more mining sites (I clearly have a problem), but without spoiling anything, I was able to get him to go on a search for one more mine.  It came a little later in our trip, but I’ll mention it now so you’re not in suspense.  Ha!

Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana

Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana

We went to Libby!  Libby, Montana happens to be the site of a former vermiculite mine, home to the largest environmental removal action in U.S. history under Superfund, as well as the first place that EPA has ever declared a Public Health Emergency, in order to assist victims of asbestos-related diseases .  Libby was on my list of destinations from the get-go, so Alan could hardly deny me the pleasure of seeing this town up close.  The town is ordinary and somewhat nicer than I expected given its sad history.  But driving by the schools and ballfields reminded me that asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was used as fill to help create the ballfields and as a foundation under a school’s ice-skating rink.  A search for the mine itself turned up restricted access roads.  Since we didn’t have the appropriate credentials, no mine gazing for us.  But, the area was beautiful and we didn’t want to let the visit go to waste.  We spotted a picnic and boat launch area along the Kootenai River and got out to eat.  It was absolutely beautiful – deep blue water, evergreens as far as the eye can see, no development, which all lead to make the smell that much more jarring.  I expected it to smell wonderful, piney, and outdoorsy.  If it had smelled like nothing, I probably would have noticed.  Instead, it smelled gross, like chemicals and industry.  We’re not sure why it smelled this way – was it due to the cleanup operations, current industrial operations that were out of sight, or something else entirely?  We stayed to eat, but couldn’t get over the strange juxtaposition between the beauty of the area and the distinctly not natural (or nice) odor.

Kootenai River in Libby, Montana

Kootenai River in Libby, Montana

The rest of our stay in Montana consisted of exploring Missoula, which we enjoyed, but not nearly as much as we enjoyed Bozeman, swimming in crystal clear Flathead Lake and at Whitefish Beach, getting a tour of Montana Motel 6s, and visiting Glacier National Park (the subject of a future post).  Most of all, I came away from our visit to this beautiful, rugged, aptly nicknamed big sky country, thinking about the state’s countless contradictions and idiosyncrasies.  A land where you see a traditional town square protest, and then realize that the protestors are armed militia men from the area calling for the impeachment of the president.  A town where, after commenting on how nice, and cute, and tourist-friendly it is, you notice a healthy population of folks who ride the rails on its periphery.  Home to a gigantic mining pit in the center of one of the biggest cities in the state, and you have to pay just to peer down inside.  A state where the preference for guns is only equaled by the surprising number of safety signs seen around the state (“be polite, don’t tailgate”).  A state where spotting three bears (two grizzlies and a black bear) is somehow just as interesting as watching a man drive down main street while eating corn on the cob.  A citizenry whose penchant for casinos (there seems to be at least one in every town, no matter the size) is only outdone by its love of the outdoors.  But regardless of these idiosyncrasies, and in some cases because of them, we both felt a connection to certain parts of the state in a way that we hadn’t in many other places.  It got under our skin, in a good way, and hasn’t left.  I look forward to returning one day – maybe as a visitor or maybe, just maybe, as a resident.