There’s a particular travel destination that entices my photography-loving husband to brave snow, sleet and 25-degree temperatures in the spring. It lures him to drive 200-plus miles in a day scouting for wildlife. It lulls him into waiting patiently, eyes glued to his viewfinder, for just the right image. This beguiling place is Yellowstone National Park.
It’s been eighteen months since we last departed and the separation tugged at our heartstrings like cupid’s bow at full draw. Our arrival in West Yellowstone, Mont. felt like a homecoming — reconnecting with friends, visiting familiar sites and anticipating the park’s spring opening. Officially, Opening Day was April 21st but the park wakes up slowly, sleepily over several weeks as snow melt gives way to snow plows.
There’s something magical about being in the park early in the season. In the stillness, you can hear snow tumbling off pine branches — close your eyes and it sounds like a crackling fire. Fresh powder remains undisturbed except for some telltale animal tracks and it’s easy to imagine that yours is the lone car on the road. Not all park roads and services are open yet, but each week brings new explorations as different areas become available.
“How come I can’t see through this”? I shouted to Greg. “Take the lens cap off”! he called out from atop of the motorhome, shovel in hand. Snow, six inches deep, blanketed Betty, our diesel damsel. I had hoped to sneak a photo of him, but clearly, the camera is better off in his hands.
So, our wildlife photo safaris begin. Moose and bear have eluded us so far. Bison command the roads. Eagles rule the air and my photography-loving husband and I continue to be captivated by the call of the wild.
As if traveling the open road in an RV is not vagabond enough, Greg and I hitched a ride from So. Calif. to San Felipe, BC, Mexico. The 283-mile road trip took two days with an overnight stop in the border town of Calexico, Calif. The first leg dropped us a mere 22 miles from our departure point at a rest stop on Interstate 10. With our roll-aboard suitcases bumping awkwardly along the uneven asphalt, we scanned the parking lot looking for our next ride. “We’ll know it when we see it”, we assured ourselves.
Moments later, we piled into the backseat of a four-passenger diesel truck towing a large box trailer and joined a mini-caravan of off-roaders hauling side-by-sides to the Baja California desert. Serendipitously, they too were destined for San Felipe!
If you know Greg and I, it’s hard to imagine us thumbing our way anywhere and, by now, you likely figured out that this was a well orchestrated tag-team trip — my romanticized version of hitchhiking!
It had been 20 years since we visited San Felipe to help our friends, Vic and Deb, move into their newly-built beach house. Somehow, we never made it back, meeting up with them over the years in other destinations. When my brother-in-law, Mike, and sister, Sharon, shared their plans to rendezvous with 90-plus other off-roaders and motorcyclists in our friends’ hometown, we couldn’t resist hitching a ride.
A few phone calls later and the relay team was set. Greg’s folks picked us up at our RV Resort and eighty-sixed us at the freeway rest stop — literally, Exit 86. Meanwhile, Mike and Sharon, along with friends, Bob and Debbie, left Bishop, Calif. 5-plus hours earlier on the second day of their journey from Reno, Nev. and arrived precisely on time for a smooth handoff.
Two hours later our convoy came to a dead stop. Calexico’s Friday border-crossing commute was in full stall. The sun set. Tail lights beamed red across two lanes like a string of Christmas lights marking a 2-1/2 hour wait. Fortunately, we planned an early morning crossing the next day. Our 7AM departure rewarded us with a traffic-free drive to the border which was uneventful except for one minor surprise.
“Passports and visas, please”, the Mexican border official asked politely.
“Everyone needs to buy a visa. It costs $30 U.S. dollars each. Good for six months”.
“We’ll just be here a week”.
“You can pay there”, he said pointing to a small office.
Apparently, visas are required when towing off-road vehicles into Mexico. We anted up and crossed the border with visas in hand. The city disappeared into desert as we wound down the MX 5 Highway south for a couple hours. If you’ve ever driven in Mexico, you know to expect military checkpoints. To me, it’s a bit unnerving pulling up to these road blocks staffed with young soldiers clad in army fatigues and automatic rifles. They search for contraband, primarily firearms and drugs. After a brief inspection, we were waved through. I smiled at the guard and I think he smiled back – his bandana-type scarf covered his face but his eyes hinted a smile.
San Felipe greeted us with sunshine and the promise of a fun, relaxing week with our friends, who anchored the last leg of the relay.
The time passed too quickly.
Days filled with morning walks on the beach, candlelight dinners in the wine cellar, gourmet meals with me as the self-proclaimed “sous-chef” (which mostly meant watching our hosts create “cuisine de delectable”), margarita and chardonnay sunset toasts…
…yoga backdropped by the sound of waves lapping the shore, tequila tastings, rousing afternoon table games, soon came to an end. Warmed by the camaraderie and joy that true friendship brings we jumped back into that four-passenger diesel truck and reverse-hitched a ride back — grateful for our family and friends. Now that’s the way to hitch-it!
Stealthily, they marched in like a dashed-black-line in motion, creeping into kitchen drawers and across counter tops, scattering only when chased by gigantic paper-towel-clad hands. Ants, they never give up!
The southern Calif. rains rolled in drenching Betty, our diesel damsel, washing away repellents, and subsiding just long enough for the ant invasion to begin again. You can squirt, squash or swat these pesky pests. You can belly-crawl under the RV and powder the tire and jack footings (if only I was so lucky to have a daily pedicure!). But, with indomitable persistence, they still find a way. Ironically, these determined little demons arrived right after New Year’s Day — as if they held a conference, penned their goals and forged an attack! “I could learn a lot from these insidious insects”, I mused, as I crafted my dreams and goals for 2017.
Relentless downpours raged for most of the month squelching our photo safari plans. But, we journeyed back to sunnier days through Greg’s photographs. One image, taken in an Arizona wind storm, mopped up my damp mood.
A towering palm tree rocked back and forth, beaten by the wind. Fronds bobbed wildly in a jumping-jack motion. In the midst of the turmoil, high in the green canopy, a Great Horned Owl gripped a frond and rode out the storm. Sometimes, when our plans are foiled, all we can do is hunker down, hang on and be flexible.
Dream big in 2017 and follow nature’s lessons: be wise like an owl and persistent like an ant!
Twenty-two of us piled into planes and cars to travel home for Christmas and keep a promise we made to each other 28 years ago.
Home this year was Reno, NV, but the location changes every year. Christmas was December 10, but the date changes every year. What doesn’t change is the tremendous effort everyone makes to be there. And, as my reflection in the plane window screamed, “We’ve been at this for a LOT of years”!
Just getting there offers travel tales from the hilarious to the miraculous. Like the time my now-brother-in-law boarded a flight to Reno to meet the whole family at our Christmas gathering. After hearing so much about him, I eagerly awaited his arrival. My sister tracked his flight… delayed… enroute… arriving soon… too much snow…. flight returned to the bay area. “Come on”, I thought, “does this guy really exist”?
Or the time my sports-loving brother-in-law decided to hoof it to the airport and scope out a bicycle route to work along the way. It seemed a noble notion. But, after hiking several miles in the morning darkness through unfamiliar residential neighborhoods, he found himself lost. A sinking feeling took hold — he could call someone but no one would get to him in time. Besides, he didn’t know where he was anyway! Just then, a taxi with its service light turned off, rounded a corner and rescued him!
West and east coast snowstorms, red-eye flights, and travel woes plagued family members over the years but to no avail. Promises are meant to be kept.
Twenty-eight years ago, my mother, Alice, took her place in heaven. She was the heart of our family. Her love, humor, forgiving nature, and passion for family gatherings and traditions made her home the go-to place. We knew a visit to Mom’s house meant we would see each other. Mom to seven, Mom-in-law to four, and Babcia (Grandmother) to three, she kept us connected.
And so, that first Christmas without her, we promised to set a date each year, rotate locations among us and gather together for “Family Christmas”. It comforted us knowing that no matter where life took us, we would touch home every year. I didn’t fully comprehend the meaning nor depth of this simple agreement at the time. Or maybe, it just grew over the years as many of us moved away, or as we retold this Christmas story to new nieces, nephews and in-laws crazy enough to embrace this lively family and its Polish traditions! This year, our family grew by one more. Mom’s third great-grandchild, Dylan Jay, arrived in November joining sister, Ava, and cousin, Rosalie, in the tyke generation. As we grow, it gets more difficult to get together, but we do the best we can. Mostly, we gather at full count (30-plus!) and dearly miss those who can’t make it.
Twenty-two of us piled into planes and cars in Reno, NV, richer from time spent together, to return home before Christmas Eve and complete the promise we made to each other 28 years ago — to share Christmas with the “other side” of our families, celebrate our individual family traditions and make room for younger families to create their own memorable traditions. Greg and I enjoyed Christmas with his family, as we have for many years, feeling grateful, connected and ready for the New Year.
I held the hummingbird in my palm, expecting it to fly but it cocked its head instead and stared at me. I stared back. It felt light as air and its body whirred like a tiny motor. Moments stretched into timelessness. With a coaxing nudge from the national park biologist, it flitted away. I had just released a newly banded hummingbird back into the wild!
What a delightful way to spend a morning at Montezuma Castle National Monument in Camp Verde, AZ. A national park volunteer tipped us off to the banding “event” the day before which felt more like a private gathering of dedicated bird-lovers. A picnic area hidden under a canopy of tall trees revealed a team of five national park employees and volunteers set up to record and band migrating hummingbirds in association with the Hummingbird Monitoring Network (www.hummonnet.org). As the sole attendees, Greg and I happily took front row seats on a picnic bench near the work table filled with banding pliers, hatpin-like posts holding tiny bands imprinted with numbers, a feeder, white mesh bags, mini “pillows” and other interesting paraphernalia. The park biologist welcomed us and described the process. Just minutes later we watched it unfold.
A hummingbird landed on one of two feeders, 20 feet away, and a net dropped like a curtain, creating a makeshift cage.
Cables stretched from the nets to stands manned by the crew. With just the touch of a switch, it was curtain time. Timing is key and sometimes the feathered beauties escaped before the finale.
Quickly, carefully, the captive bird was placed in a mesh bag and delivered to the biologist who checked to see if it was banded.
This black-chinned hummingbird was not sporting the numbered anklet. “How’d you learn to do this?” Greg asked as we watched her gently place a measuring tool on a skinny, twig-like leg sticking through a hole in the bag. “Extensive training. We actually practiced on toothpicks”, she replied. After applying the band she hand-held the bird, made some measurements and softly blew through a straw separating breast and neck feathers to check for fat content (thick necks) and developing eggs.
Then, the bird was gently wrapped in a sheer fabric square (feet and head sticking out) like a mini-burrito and weighed on a scale. A team member recorded all the data during the process which took five minutes or less.
With a swooping motion mimicking the hummingbird’s natural flight to a feeder, the biologist held the bird at the table-top feeder while it drank its fill of sweetness.
“Would you like to release the bird?” she asked me. I opened my hand and she placed the hummingbird in my palm.
“If we find a petroglyph matching one of these trail markers, we’ll know where we are,” I said, pulling a crumpled map out of my pocket. “Good luck!”, Greg laughed staring at a tumble of basalt boulders filled with carved handprints, symbols, and animals. “What are we looking for?” I showed him the map. “Hah! I just took a picture of this one. It’s over here!”
What a fun way to explore the Piedras Marcadas Canyon (“canyon of marked rocks”) in Petroglyph National Monument. Co-managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the Monument contains over 20,000 documented images along its 17-mile escarpment. Experts believe about 90% of the images were chiseled into the black rock surfaces by ancestral Puebloans 400 to 700 years ago.
Like treasure hunters, we followed the sandy path searching for each trail marker’s insignia and celebrating our finds. Sections of untouched boulders, “desert varnish” (patina) gleaming black in the sunshine added to the anticipation of our next discovery. The petroglyphs appeared in the distance looking like collages with images grouped together.
Native Americans today explain that each symbol was placed intentionally, not randomly, and needs to be viewed in context with surrounding images. Still, mystery surrounds the meaning of these valued cultural symbols. Some designate tribal or clan affiliations. Others are rooted in spiritual beliefs. Many are unknown. The National Park Service describes it best: “Petroglyphs still have contemporary meaning, while the meaning of others is no longer known, but are respected for belonging to those who came before.”
After readily identifying five of the six petroglyphs, I donned my “explorer extraordinaire” hat and got stumped. The last, marker #1, seemed to be missing. Time passed and Greg and I regretfully headed towards the trailhead. As we stepped away from the boulder wall, it appeared!
It seemed a stark contrast to walk the path of the ancients surrounded by suburbia. A young man heading out on the path asked for directions. I showed him my crumpled map and explained the petroglyph trail markers. He pulled out his I-phone and asked if he could take a photo of the map. A stark contrast indeed!
“Big Brown Betty to Raptor One.” Silence.
“Big Brown Betty to Raptor One.” No answer.
I didn’t really expect a response. After traveling 65 days, 4,500 RV miles and countless car miles together, Greg and I sadly bid farewell to my sister, Sharon, and brother-in-law, Mike. Clicking the radio once more for nostalgia’s sake, I stowed it away and smiled. It’s been a wonderful, fun-filled journey and an absolute joy traveling with them.
Our cross country trips are not over yet. Mike and Sharon’s route now leads home, 2,000-plus miles to the northwest. Ours ushers us southwest about 1,500 miles. As planned, Raptor One rolled out from Memphis yesterday, three days prior to Betty’s scheduled departure. We said our goodbyes the night before. Thankfully, I didn’t hear their diesel truck start up for a final goodbye the next morning. The flood of tears at the sight of them driving away would’ve put the Tennessee thunderstorms to shame.
The Mississippi River flows peacefully past our campsite and the vacant one next to us. I’ll have plenty of time to relay travel stories from this expedition in the months to come. For now, reflections of our times together, from the hilarious to touching, crowd my mind.
Greg and Mike displayed enormous patience when Sharon and I, armed with maps, gave conflicting directions. And, when we engaged our Rand-McNally GPS divas, Natalie and Rosie, along with Siri, they tuned out the choir and simply asked, “Which way do we go?”
Introducing ourselves as Wallace & Wagstaff when checking in to RV Parks brought a common response: “Sounds like a law firm.”
We mastered the subway systems in Washington D.C. and Boston, MA after some practice and discussion.
“Green line to yellow to blue.”
“No, green to red to blue.”
“Blue line’s down, pick another color.”
We often reminded ourselves, “this is a once in a lifetime trip”. Thank you Sharon and Mike for enriching our travels! This has, indeed, been the trip of a lifetime. Godspeed.
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