Friday, November 17, 2017

Magic in the Sky


I was in Allahabad at the time, and the moon decided to pass between the sun and the earth on that day, casting its shadow on northern India. What's more, Allahabad was one of those few lucky cities where the eclipse was total. The moon completely covered the face of the sun, enabling us to look at the duo with our naked eyes and see the solar corona. My father even took photos of the event. I remember everything about the day vividly: how the light decreased in jumps, how the panicked sparrows came back to the tree in our garden, how the circles of sunlight in the shadow of that tree turned to crescents. And I remembered the diamond ring. As the moon passed the face of the sun and the sun started to peek out from one of the sides, I saw light that was whiter than I could ever imagine. Naturally, I have wanted to see it again ever since.

So when I found out about the Great American Total Solar Eclipse (as the media keeps calling it) last year, I had decided I had to witness the event. What's more, the path of the total eclipse was passing through St. Louis, Missouri this time, and we have friends there. I ordered a solar filter sheet on Amazon before they went out of stock, and cut it out to create caps for my telephoto lens and Poulami's binoculars. The only thing that remained to be done now was to plan our road trip in such a way that our return journey took us through St. Louis on August 21.

So we decided to drive from Great Sand Dunes in Colorado to St. Louis, Missouri over two days. Most of this drive was through the agricultural lands of Kansas - a terribly straight road through a terribly flat land. Our car's AC started acting up on the first day of this trip and we got a feel of the 40-ish degree Celsius temperature outside. On the second day, the AC gave up completely and turned this into the most uncomfortable leg of our trip.

We spent the first night at a hotel in Hays, a city in Kansas. This place was chosen only because it was on our way and roughly the center point between Great Sand Dunes and St. Louis. We were so exhausted by our seven-hour drive that day that we didn't feel like leaving the hotel at all. We ordered Chinese food for dinner and ate in our room. Next morning, we hit the road again and reached St. Louis after driving for another eight hours. The city where our friends live isn't actually St. Louis but one of the southern suburbs called Fenton, and this was good because the moon's shadow would be passing just south of St. Louis. Staying in Fenton meant we could see the eclipse from the house. And that's what we did in the afternoon. Our friends were at work, but Poulami and I watched the eclipse from their deck. My father had to worry about running out of film in 1995, but I don't have to think of such matters anymore. I set up my digital SLR on my tripod and took photos to my heart's content.

It was strange how similar the experience was to the last time. The light going down by leaps and bounds, the crescent shaped patches of sunlight. The absence of sparrows, or any other birds for that matter, was conspicuous. But then, maybe the tree in their garden doesn't have birds. Once during the whole experience light clouds threatened to cover the face of the sun, but they went away quickly.

Crescent-shaped images of the sun
Here are the photos that I took that day. I think they would do a much better job of describing the celestial magic by which the sun and the moon appear exactly the same size during a total solar eclipse on the only planet that has observers to appreciate it.



Solar corona

Totality selfie

Diamond ring
Our road trip story ends here. Actually, truth be told, it should have ended here. I would have liked to write that we left Fenton that evening and made an uneventful five-hour drive back home, because any further experience wouldn't be able to top the solar eclipse. But I can't write that because that journey took nine hours and we reached home at 3:00 a.m. The highway was congested with traffic moving at a snail's pace. All this traffic was returning to the northern states of Illinois and Wisconsin and Minnesota after watching the total solar eclipse from Missouri. The traffic was so slow at points that people were literally getting out of their cars, grabbing drinks from their trunk and going back to their seat again. To add insult to injury, we were also hit by severe thunderstorms on the way.

After going to bed at 4:00 a.m., I also had to go attend a departmental meeting at 9:00 o'clock the next morning. That meeting kicked off the semester which has caused this inordinate amount of delay in writing about our road trip from August. Now that I'm done, I can go back to writing about other topics of a non-serial nature.

(The End)

Monday, November 06, 2017

Mountains of Sand

When we were planning this road trip back in February, deciding the journey up to Salt Lake City was fairly easy. The difficult part was planning the return trip. Salt Lake City is about 1500 miles away from Lake Forest by the shortest route. This route passes through the lower part of Wyoming, and Nebraska and Iowa, a part of the US completely devoid of national parks. Now since we would be traveling in our own car, so we didn't have the option of flying back and would have to make this long and boring drive anyway. We would also need to stay at hotels for the night since driving 1500 miles takes at least three days. So we decided to add another 300 miles to the route, so that we could travel via another national park, and then stay with our friends in St. Louis, Missouri for the total solar eclipse of August 21.

So the final plan was this: we would drive from Salt Lake City to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and camp there for two nights. Then we would drive to a city called Hays in Kansas where we would stay in a hotel for a night. Finally, we would drive to St. Louis and spend the night there, and if the weather permitted, we would be able to witness one of the greatest celestial spectacles the next day, before driving back to Lake Forest the same evening.

By the time we reached Great Sand Dunes at the end of a ten-hour drive through Utah and Colorado, it was getting dark. We had passed through mixed weather, and as the sun dipped low in the western sky, we had seen sand dunes, and rainbows over mountains in the distance, and fields of sunflowers glowing in the late evening sunlight. But we had not stopped to take photos. Finally, when we had entered the park and set up our tent at our pre-reserved the Pinyon Flats Campground, we decided to rest and look around us. We could see that the campground had evergreen trees, and the outline of a dark mountain was just visible against the dark sky on one side. As we lit a campfire and finished our dinner with leftover Thai food from the previous night, the milky way came up above us. We were very tired, but I managed a few photos of the starry sky as Poulami wrote her journal in the tent.

The sky from our campsite the first night

When we initially made our travel plans, we had reserved the campsite for two nights. But then, since we had added one extra night at Salt Lake City, we had to cancel the first night's reservation at Great Sand Dunes and we didn't find a reservation for a second night there. So when we woke up the next morning, our first thought was, "Where do we sleep tonight?" Of course, we had a fallback option, but we didn't like it. A few miles down the road outside the park gates, there was a small privately-owned place called "Great Sand Dunes Oasis." The place had a restaurant, a fuel pump, a general store, a tiny motel, a tiny lodge, and a campground. The hotel and the lodge had been full, but we knew the campground would have space for us. Whether we wanted to stay there was a different matter altogether. The online reviews of this campground weren't stellar; it was just a piece of rocky land without much marking for campsites and people had had to drive uphill or downhill over rocks the size of baseballs to reach their sites. So we were a little hesitant.

Our first campsite
But the problem solved itself in a very unexpected manner. Two rangers were walking by when we were folding up our tent, and we asked them if there were any empty sites on the campground here, just in case. They replied that the other side of the campground was completely first-come-first-serve, and so there were several empty campsites there. We should just go and choose one, pay for it, and set up our tent. This fact wasn't very clear from their website, so we had no idea there could be empty campsites. So we quickly packed up our stuff, drove to Loop A, chose one of the best campsites and set up our tent there. Our campsite was a couple of feet above the road, and the campsites across the road were a couple of feet below. So when we looked at the sand dunes  - yes, we could see the sand dunes from our campsite - it was as if we were on the highest row of a gallery, and the other rows would not obstruct our view. Happy with our campsite, we went to look for breakfast.

Hummingbirds at the Oasis
Breakfast at the Oasis restaurant was good. As a bonus, we sat next to a window outside which they had a hung a hummingbird feeder. So I could take lots of photos of hummingbirds feeding with the sand dunes in the background. After leaving the Oasis, we took photos at the park entrance sign, then headed back into the park. We had already been to the visitor center, now we wanted to see the dunes up close.


The sand dunes are actually just one part of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. They cover an area of 30 square miles and the tallest dunes are up to 750 feet high. The sand flowed in as sediment from the surrounding mountains over millions of years. Today, no new sand enters the system, but the upper layers of the dunes regularly shift around by the wind. The dunes are sandwiched between mountains on both sides, and two creeks that flow over the edge of the sand. We had to wade through cool, crystal-clear ankle-deep flowing water of one of these to walk to the sand dunes.

Medano Creek
Once we stepped onto the sand, we began to feel the true scale of things. On looking ahead, we saw a scene that could have come out straight of the Sahara Desert. Only, I doubt if Sahara is as dotted with colourful tourists as this place was. Also, even though it wasn't evident from where we stood, this place was about 8000 feet above the sea level.

What was also not evident to us, was how difficult it was to climb the dunes. There were people who were climbing to the tops of the dunes, and some of them brought boards to slide down the sand on. We climbed halfway up the first one and realized it wasn't our cup of tea. Besides, we were walking barefoot and the sand was beginning to heat up. Actually there were signs warning us not to go barefoot on the sand for this specific reason, but we couldn't have walked through the water in our shoes, and putting on shoes and socks on our wet feet while on the sand would have been messy. Besides, we thought we are from India, how hot can it get? But as the sun climbed high in the sky, we realized we would have to leave soon. So we did a quick photo shoot on the dune and walked back to our car. After the walk on the hot sand, the walk through the Medano Creek was very soothing.

Photo shoot on the dunes
Then we returned to our campground and found an RV the size of a huge bus in the campsite across the road blocking our view of the dunes. We were still like the people sitting in a high gallery seat,  but with a Hagrid-sized person sitting in the seat in front. Poulami and I had bread, bananas and miscellaneous uncooked items for lunch, and all through the hot afternoon, we cursed the old man and (presumably) his wife who had parked the humongous vehicle in our view. It seemed their idea of a camping holiday was quite different from ours, because the first thing that they did after parking their two vehicles (apart from the RV they had an SUV too) was to get out a dish antenna and install it outside. The second thing was getting two chairs out and sitting down next to the RV, where they promptly had a fight and stopped talking to each other. They spent the rest of the day and the evening watching TV inside their vehicle. We tried to sleep a while in our tent, but it felt more like getting pressure-cooked. The presence of a crying baby in a tent nearby didn't help either, so we finally gave up.

After our little photo shoot in the sand earlier, I had realized that I had chosen a bad time for it. For really dramatic photos of the sand, we would need to visit the dunes when the sun was low and the dunes were bathed in deep shadows. So we went to the dues once again in the evening. This time, I got the chance to make a video (starts around 4:53 in the video collage above) of a rare phenomenon called surge flow in the Medano Creek. Then, we climbed a low dune and sat in the warm sand until the sun was really low in the sky. As we walked back, we found the sand in the shadows had already started getting cold.



On the dunes around sunset
We were not done with the sun yet. The previous evening, we had seen fields of sunflowers in the golden light of the setting sun, but had failed to stop to photograph them. Now, we drove a few miles outside the park gates, parked our car by the side of the road, and I photographed the sunflowers and sunset to my heart's content. It was a beautiful time at a beautiful place, and even the eerie mass- howling of dozens of coyotes nearby added to the magic of the moment. When we had first thought of visiting Great Sand Dunes, I had thought the place had nothing to offer other than a tiny stretch of desert. But the place proved to be much more than that, with flowing creeks and fields of flowers and hummingbirds and dark, starry skies. The more we saw of the place, the more we loved it.
Sunset behind sunflowers
The evening at our campground was quite eventful. We were visited by a herd of deer, we tried to make popcorn on the campfire and ended up making lots of burnt corn, and finally, we cooked couscous and omelettes for dinner. As the night deepened, I managed to take my dream shot - our tent beneath the Milky Way. It wasn't perfect; the campground had too much light and trees and clouds blocked part of the sky, but still, it was something.

Night sky at our second campsite
The next morning, I woke up early to photograph the dunes from the campground as the first rays of the sun started to paint them golden from the top. When the top of the tallest sand dune did turn gold, I looked through my viewfinder and found that someone had already climbed to the peak and was waiting there to see the sunrise. They must have had to start a few hours earlier to get there on time. Some people can be crazy about hiking.

Visitors to the campground

Sun touches the dunes... and the person at the top.
Then we had leftover couscous for breakfast and packed up our tent, for the last time on this trip. We had finally run out of interesting places to visit and were about to start on one of the most boring legs of our road trip: a seven-hour drive through the plains of Colorado and Kansas.

(To be concluded in the next part...)

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Desert of Salt

The morning of August 15 found us in Salt Lake City, minus our car and unsure of what to do.

Our Airbnb lodging in Salt Lake City
When I had filled my fuel tank back in Badlands National Park, I had forgetfully put the fuel cap on my trunk and driven away from the pump. Needless to say, I never found it again.  Later, the "Check Engine" light on my dashboard had come up, indicating something was wrong. I knew a missing fuel cap triggered that light, but since my car is pretty old, and we had some 1,500 miles to drive home, I decided to get it checked anyway. So after we arrived at our Airbnb accommodation the evening of the 14th, I looked up a nearby Sears Auto while Poulami cooked dinner. The Sears Auto had checked our engine and said they found two codes from the transmission, besides the code for the fuel cap, and I should get it checked at Aamco. The Aamco people said it would take a few hours to check. So here we were, wandering about Salt Lake City on foot, devoid of our car and wondering what to do.

TRAX station on the road
We had added a day to our Salt Lake City stay as an afterthought, but didn't want to pack that day with hectic sightseeing. So we had spent the first evening lazily talking to our hosts, asking them about the places to see. After we dropped off the car, it seemed the best course of action would be to go to Temple Square to see the great Mormon Temple of Salt Lake City. Downtown Salt Lake City is not very large, and the streets are very nicely laid out in the form of a grid. The streets are wide and traffic is very disciplined. We saw buses, and also a light rail system called TRAX that was reminiscent of the Newark Light Rail that I used during my PhD days. We didn't take any public transport since the temple was just over a mile away and decided to walk there.

The LDS Temple
The Mormon Church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS Church), has its headquarters in Salt Lake City and the huge temple and other surrounding buildings is known as the Temple Square. Members of the church use the building for weddings (among other things), and we saw at least half a dozen couples getting married. We thought some of the brides looked too young to be getting married, so we Googled for the legal age for marriage in Utah and were surprised to learn that it was only 15. We spent quite some time in the Temple premises and then crossed the road to a nice shopping area with outdoor fountains. We found a restaurant called Blue Lemon and had our lunch there, complete with a Facebook post of the food and check-in. This incident, as they say in novels, will be important in the latter part of the story.

City Creek at Temple Square
After lunch, we decided we were getting worried about our car. The Aamco people were supposed to call us, but they hadn't. So we walked back to Aamco and asked about the car. Initially, everyone seemed to be avoiding us, compounding our worries. Then, the manager came and faced us. He seemed embarrassed.
"Er... actually, sir, we are sorry to say this, we didn't find anything wrong with your car. We have been running tests on your transmission since the morning, but everything seems fine. We hate to send you away across the country without fixing anything, but we can't find anything to fix."
I suspected the "Hate to send you away without fixing anything" was less due to a concern for our safety and more due to the fact that the tests that they have been conducting were supposed to be complimentary unless they found something wrong. But we were happy, and we left with our car.

The previous evening, when we had asked our Airbnb hosts about places to see in the city, both of them had told us to take a tour of the Utah State Capitol. The tour was a one-hour affair, with explanations and anecdotes about the architectural features of the magnificent building. It turned out that Poulami and I were the only two people interested to see the building on this hot summer afternoon, and the docent, who was an Indian lady, gave the tour for just the two of us.



At the Utah State Capitol
Next morning, we set out for the place that I had been waiting for since the day I decided to come to Salt Lake City. The Great Salt Lake of Utah is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world, second only to the Dead Sea. It is remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville that once covered much of western Utah. Today, Lake Bonneville has dried up, leaving behind a vast flat area covered with salt known as the Bonneville Salt Flats. this is the place that I had wanted to visit. I had come to know about the Salt Flats from an issue of the National Geographic Magazine back in my childhood, but most people now know the Bonneville Salt Flats for the speedway that is built on the flats. This is the track on which cars attempt to break the land speed record. In fact, the place is open to the public, and it was my secret wish to drive my car over the Salt Flats and take a picture of my car there.

Mirage on the road

The place is about 90 miles from the city and it takes an hour and a half to drive. As we left the outer limits of Salt Lake City, we found the remains of the Great Salt Lake right of the road. Then, as we moved further out, the temperature soared to 40 degrees Celsius and the earth changed to salt all around. There was even a factory of Morton Salt right on the flats. Then vegetation became rarer and we started seeing mirages. I have seen mirages on the highway before and after that day, but the mirages that I saw on the salt flats were somewhat more pronounced than any that I have ever seen anywhere else. If I stared too long, it was creating some sort of illusion in my eyes and it was difficult to see the horizon. I wondered whether there was any chance of my old car overheating, but nothing of the kind happened. At one point, we saw a partially covered parking area by the side of the road. This was our destination.

As I parked, a family in a big SUV came and parked a few spots away. They had been driving over the salt flats, and this was evident from the salt encrusted tires of their car. The bottom of their car, which was quite higher than mine, was also covered in a thick layer of salt. The passengers had apparently not stayed in the car the whole time, because when they came out, their shoes were caked with salt. I decided I was not taking my car on the salt flats. We walked down on the salt flats with our camera and tripod to take photos.

Bonneville Salt Flats

Imagine a flat field laid out right up to the horizon. Now imagine that field is a dazzling white instead of green, and you will have imagined the Bonneville Salt Flats. The ground beneath our feet was wet and granular, not unlike what salt left outside in the rainy season becomes. When it rains, this whole place is transformed into a shallow flat lake stretching up to the horizon, whose flawless surface perfectly mirrors the sky above. We didn't have a chance to see that spectacle as it had  not rained in the last few days, but what we saw was pretty amazing in itself. I set up my camera on the tripod and took many photos. There were other tourists on the flat as well, and some had even come with dogs. One lady was collecting salt from the flat in a Ziplock bag. I wanted to ask what she intended to do with it, but shyness prevented me from doing so. There is a faucet of water for washing salt off your shoes right where you come out of the flats. When we had seen and photographed the place to our hearts' content, we washed our sneakers there and came back to the car. Then we drove back to our Airbnb lodging and napped the afternoon off.
Our lunch at Blue Lemon

When I had Facebook-posted our lunch from Blue Lemon the previous day, my old friend Payel, who lives in Salt Lake City with her husband Dipanjan, had seen it. She had subsequently contacted me, and after some awkward explanation about why I had not informed her of our impending visit, we had agreed to meet them for dinner. So that evening we drove to a Thai restaurant called Sawadee, again near Temple Square and also close to the University of Utah campus. I usually avoid driving in the downtown areas of big cities, especially unknown ones, but I found driving in Salt Lake City a breeze. The food was fantastic and it felt really good to meet up with an old friend after more than a decade.

That was all there was to our two and a half days in Salt Lake City: a temple, a state capitol and a desert of salt. When we started on our journey again the next morning, we realized that we had not even bought a souvenir fridge magnet to remember the place by. We tried to correct this omission by visiting a couple of stores looking for souvenirs, but we didn't find them. In the end, we had to leave Salt Lake City with just some memories, some photos, and some grains of salt stuck to our shoes.

This time, we were headed for a real desert. As deserts go, it was tiny, but it was made of sand.


(To be continued...)


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Two days at Grand Tetons

There are some places that are magnificent at first sight, but have nothing more to add if you look deeper. Both of us found Grand Teton National Park to be like that. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying we didn't love it. I'm just saying that the amount of love that we had when we first entered Grand Teton didn't increase over the two days that we stayed there.

We entered the park on a foggy morning, driving straight from Yellowstone National Park. We originally wanted to stay in one of the lodges in the park, because... grizzlies. But the lodges were all full when we had planned the trip five months earlier and we had no choice but to stay in a campground. Grand Teton has several campgrounds and all of them are first-come-first-serve. So we had to go and reserve a site early, and we chose Jenny Lake, the most popular one. It also happened to be one of the farthest from Yellowstone, so we literally saw most of the park even before we got to the campground.
The Tetons from Colter Bay
We missed a spot at the Jenny Lake campground by a whisker. The car ahead of us got the last campsite, while we got nothing. I'm sure this will sound like a classic case of sour grapes now, but we had not liked the Jenny Lake campground at all by the looks of it, and we were sort of relieved when we didn't get a site. The sites were all shaded and wooded and the whole area seemed cold and damp and full of bears. So we turned our car around and drove straight to Lizard Creek campground, which was the second most popular campground at the other end of the park. We found a nice sunny campground close to Jackson Lake here and set up our tent. Over the next two days, we stayed at the campground and went to the nearby Colter Bay village for our dining, fuel, souvenir-buying and ranger-consulting needs. The last of these things didn't go too well, because the ranger that we met there was the pontificating type. Our conversation went somewhat like this:

I: "Which are the best places for photography?"
Ranger: You have to find them. It's not as if I can tell you a spot, you drive there and click a great photo. Go all over the park, get a feel of the places and see what works best for you.
I: Uh.. thanks! Which are the best places to see animals?
Ranger: Right here. You are in the middle of it. Just choose any hiking trail and hike away from the road, and you'll come across animals. Since yesterday, people have seen all kinds of animals within a few miles from here. I cannot tell you where to go, you have to find them.
So we collected a map and a pamphlet from him and left. The pamphlet gave us more concrete directions about where to find animals and we spent most of our time at those places, but in vain. We hardly saw anything worth mentioning, apart from a bear. But I'll come to that later. First let me describe the park.
Evening at Oxbow Bend
The most impressive feature of Grand Teton National Park is the massive Teton mountain range standing right next to it. I have been to Colorado and seen a lot of the Rockies, but I have never seen a mountain range in this country that looked more imposing and majestic than the Grand Tetons. At 13,775 ft, it is only the 60th tallest peak in the US, but it is definitely one of the most photogenic. The park is full of tranquil lakes and calm-surfaced rivers that mirror this range and create picture-postcard scenes round the clock. Apart from the mountain range, lucky visitors also get to photograph moose, elk, deer, wolves, black bears and grizzlies, not to mention smaller animals and birds.

Meteor shower from the campground
We didn't see any of these animals on the first day, though we spent a considerable amount of time sitting by the river at a place called the Oxbow Bend. We did see a few deer when we were having dinner at the Colter Bay Village, but we see deer in our garden at home, so that doesn't count. Other than that, we saw a must-rat or river-otter (not sure which) swimming in the water, and pelicans. That night, we could see the Perseid meteor shower from our campsite and I was even able to take a few photos of meteors by putting my camera on my car dashboard and setting it up to shoot the sky automatically through the night. But in the tent, we slept uneasy because we had heard that there had been six bear sightings around the campground this summer.
Dawn at Oxbow bend
Next morning, we were up before sunrise and back at Oxbow Bend. This time, we saw hoof prints of moose or elk next to the water, but nothing else. After the sun came up, the number of people there increased, and we left. As we left, we saw a crowd by the roadside a mile from where we had been sitting. We stopped to inquire a ranger what had happened.
"Grizzly number 360 was sighted going into the woods next to these roads here ten minutes ago."
We parked our car and got out. I put my telephoto lens on my camera and joined the crowd of people waiting to see grizzly number 360. It was maddening to think that we were drinking tea from our flask standing next to our car at Oxbow bend ten minutes ago, while there was a grizzly on the road hardly a mile from us. While one may be forgiven for considering us unenthusiastic about the presence of bears at our campsite at night, our enthusiasm for photographing such bears in the daylight and away from the campground knew no bounds. If only we had not taken that tea break!

An elderly couple standing at the "bear jam" told us they had seen a black bear on Signal Mountain summit that morning. The bear had crossed the road in front of their car and later, they had seen it eating berries on the mountain slope. So we decided to go to Signal Mountain.

To reach Signal Mountain summit, one has to drive on a very narrow winding road with dense forest on both sides, and the place immediately screams "bears." Sure enough, Poulami spotted the bear browsing berry bushes on the hillside through her binoculars from the summit. Soon, we were showing it to a growing crowd of other tourists and taking photos. An Indian lady even borrowed Poulami's binoculars for a view, and then while returning them, glared at her husband and said "I told you, we need a pair of binoculars!"
Black bear on Signal Mountain
Snake River Overlook (on B&W film)


Poulami at Cunningham Cabin
It was all bright and sunny at this time, and it was quite warm when we drove to the Snake River Overlook and Cunningham Cabin outside the park gates. But the day went downhill from there. As Poulami tried to cook rice at the campground, the sky darkened and big drops started falling. The rice wasn't cooking because we didn't have a pressure cooker (we were at an elevation of 6,827 ft), but somehow we managed to cook it by weighing the lid of our pot down with a heavy rock. As soon as we had finished serving ourselves the food, the rain came down in torrents and we had to get into the car and finish eating there. Later, we tried to take a nap in our tent as a heavy thunderstorm raged outside, and let's just say that the experience wasn't nice. Firstly, being surrounded by tall pines isn't the best of situations to be in during a thunderstorm, and secondly, after about an hour of torrential rain, our tent started leaking water at the seams. It was only a drop or two coming in through the piercings in the fabric where it is stitched at the corners, but it made the inside damp. The thunderstorm passed after some time, but the sky remained overcast with promise of more rain in the hours to come.
Overcast Tetons at Willow Flats Overlook, second evening

Aspen grove, Willow Flats Overlook
As we sat in our car watching a fresh bout of rain at the Willow Flats Overlook that evening, we simultaneously said something: we were not enjoying this camping experience as much as we usually do. This was the first time we were staying in a tent without actually wanting to do it in the first place. The weather was cold and damp and we longed for a warm lodge room. There was a real fear of bears in the campground that we couldn't put out of our minds despite being repeatedly told the fact that bear attacks were rare. And the thunderstorms were not helping matters; according to the radio news there were more in the offing tonight. We needed a good night's sleep because we had another long drive ahead of us the next day. So we decided we were going to sleep in the car that night. The car was definitely safer than the tent, both from bears and lightning strikes. So after we had finished our dinner with pizza from the village and leftover rice from our lunch, we reclined the front seats of our car as far as they would go, warmed the inside to a comfortable temperature (and turned the engine off), and went to sleep. I woke up a few times in the night, and it was raining most of that time. At some point, I found the inside of the windshield and the windows all fogged up, and opened the windows a crack. I am happy to say, both of us slept a lot better that night. On looking back, I can now see why we had not been able to book lodges at Grand Teton five months before the trip, when even lodges at Yellowstone were available. Grant Teton National Park was on the path of the total solar eclipse of August 21, and people were trying to get in and stay at the park during the eclipse, even if that meant reserving campgrounds and lodges for over a week before the big day.

Arch made of deer antlers, Jackson, Wyoming
We had other plans, of course. We would see the Solar Eclipse from St. Louis, but before that, we had two other important destinations to visit. So the next morning, after coming back from an early morning drive through the park, we packed our stuff and were back on the road. We paused briefly at the Snake River Overlook again, because the Tetons were looking stunning in the early morning sunlight. We slowed down a little as we passed through the quaint town of Jackson where we saw pretty little houses decorated with flowers and arches made of deer antlers by the road. But soon, we were driving towards Salt Lake City, Utah almost six hours away.

Apart from getting my first speeding ticket, this journey was mostly uneventful and we reached Salt Lake City late in the afternoon.


(To be continued...)

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Last Day at Yellowstone

On our last full day at Yellowstone, we started early. I don't just mean earlier than the previous day, but also earlier than we thought we did. My new Casio watch was to blame.

Just before leaving for the trip, I bought a new wristwatch whose one flaw is that its hands can only be moved forward while adjusting the time. When we crossed over from Central Time to Mountain Time while driving to Badlands on the first day, I didn't set my watch back by one hour because that would require moving the hands forward by eleven hours. I just thought I'd remember to subtract an hour every time I looked at the watch. I didn't remember it this morning. So when we thought we were leaving a little before our check-out time of 11:00 a.m., it was not yet 10:00 a.m. We realized our mistake sometime later, but we were happy we made it.

Cow elk near Grant Village
Today our first stop was at the Lake Area. There wasn't much to see, apart from the large Lake Hotel facing Yellowstone Lake. In fact, we had been driving next to the lake all the way here. Wikipedia says
Yellowstone Lake is the largest body of water in Yellowstone National Park. The lake is 7,732 feet (2,357 m) above sea level and covers 136 square miles (350 km2) with 110 miles (180 km) of shoreline. While the average depth of the lake is 139 ft (42 m), its greatest depth is at least 390 ft (120 m). Yellowstone Lake is the largest freshwater lake above 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in North America.
Me in front of Yellowstone Lake
We didn't spend too much time here, but we did take some photos in front of the lake. Then we looked at the map and decided we wanted to do a short hike at the Natural Bridge trail nearby. We hadn't hiked much on this trip so we looked forward to it. We drove to the Natural Bridge trailhead, parked our car and got ready. I took the camera and accessories, and Poulami took her binoculars. We filled our backpacks with trail mix, water bottles and rain ponchos. We put on hats to protect ourselves from the sun, and sprayed ourselves with bug spray. Then we walked to the end of the parking lot and there we saw a sign at the beginning of the hiking trail:
GRIZZLIES AND BLACK BEARS FREQUENT THIS AREA. ALWAYS HIKE IN GROUPS. MAKE NOISE WHILE HIKING. CARRY BEAR SPRAY AND KNOW HOW TO USE IT. DO NOT RUN IF YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR.
We came back to our car and put our stuff back into the car. Soon we were driving away towards our next destination, the Fishing Bridge.

Fishing Bridge is a small bridge on the Yellowstone River where we spent some time taking photos. Then we drove to the Mud Volcano area which has a handful of hydrothermal features. This place is also one of the most changing places in Yellowstone. The place called "Cooking Hillside", for instance, was a dense forest until 1978. Then there was an earthquake and the ground temperature rose to 94 degrees Celsius. The trees sizzled and toppled one by one until the hill became barren as we see it today. Names of other landmarks, such as Sizzling Basin, Churning Cauldron, Black Dragon's Cauldron, Mud Volcano, Sulfur Cauldron, Sour Lake and Mud Geyser, have equally interesting origin stories. I found the Dragon's Mouth Spring the most interesting of the lot. It is a cave with smoke coming out of it. There is also a constant rumbling roar coming from the inside, accentuated by rhythmical waves of water splashing out. I could almost believe that cave was home to a mythical giant or a real dragon.

Dragon's Mouth Spring
Next we passed Hayden Valley again. By this time we were so used to bison that we didn't even bother to stop. We had seen bison resting at the Mud Volcano area as well. We drove on straight to Artist Point near the Canyon Village. We had seen pictures of the waterfall on Yellowstone River taken from this point and they had looked amazing. On reaching there, however, we had to spend quite some time to park our car. If Yellowstone National Park has one flaw, it's that it is not equipped to adequately handle the amount of visitors it gets. Particularly, if they build a few more restaurants, and keep the existing ones open from morning till night, a lot of that problem can be solved. People don't stick to strict schedules for breakfast, lunch and dinner while on a trip, and so it is odd that restaurants should stick to that schedule and close down during the afternoon while there are people waiting outside to eat.
View from Artist Point
Artist Point is an overlook that juts out from the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and offers a view of the 308-foot tall Lower Falls of the same river a mile away. The waterfall itself is magnificent, and the colourful walls of the canyon provide a fantastic frame for it, making it many times more beautiful. In fact, I can't remember ever seeing a place that looked so beautiful that it looks equally good in all kinds of photos, irrespective of the camera or the photographer that captured it. We spent some time here, taking our own photos, having our photos taken by kind strangers, and kindly taking group photos of strangers.

Next we went to the Canyon Village. We would stay at the Canyon Lodge here for the night, but right now we were only interested in lunch. We left for Lamar Valley after having lunch. Lamar Valley was the last major area that we were going to see in the park. It was famous for a variety of animals, but most notably for wolves. And it was easy to see why Lamar Valley was famous - we came across a big bison herd right by the side of the road as we were entering the valley. A lot of cars had gathered at the place and people were photographing the animals from the roadside. We did the same. There were rangers around to keep an eye on everything. Poulami had always wanted to have a picture with bison in the background, and here we had the perfect opportunity to do that. Although the bison seen in the background of this photo are at what is known as a 'safe distance', had they decided to run for some reason, they would have been on top of us in no time.

Poulami's bison-background photo
Further down the road we saw more bison in the grasslands far away below the road. This place was similar to Hayden Valley - a vast grass-covered plain far below the level of the road, crisscrossed with streams and dotted with occasional trees. As we stopped the car and scanned the valley below, Poulami discovered something light-coloured in the grass with her binoculars and we were momentarily excited thinking it was a wolf. It turned out to be a pronghorn antelope. We saw more pronghorns closer to the road while returning and we were also able to get photos.

Pronghorn
Bison herd at Lamar Valley
A little later, we hit the main bison herd. I speak figuratively, of course. There were bison of all sizes on both sides of the road as far as the eyes could see. They were standing, sitting, grazing and blowing up little clouds of dust close to the road. The traffic slowed to a crawl, and from time to time, even stopped long enough to allow me to take the camera from Poulami and click a few pictures on my side of the road. We passed through this place and then came to a part of the valley where there was a river by the road. There were people hiking and fishing here, and we felt that really destroyed any chances of us seeing bears and wolves. So we decided to turn back from this point. And while returning, we had our first bison-on-the-road moment of the trip.


 As I mentioned above, we faced quite a lot of traffic while going. However, while returning, we didn't face that much of traffic. As we approached the area where the most bison were grazing, we saw bison cross the road in ones or twos in the distance. Cars were avoiding them by moving to the other lane because there was little oncoming traffic at this time. Suddenly, there was some activity in the herd to our right and about twenty of the animals stampeded towards the road, just ahead of our car. Now I have bicycled among a stampeding herd of (domestic) buffalo in Allahabad during my school days, but I was young and silly in those days. Although I was in my car now, these were wild bison and I wouldn't want a score of these animals charging at my car.

I want to make it clear that the bison here were not aggressive towards us, or attacking us. In fact, all evidence seemed to suggest that they didn't even see us. But just because there were so many of them and they were starting to climb on to the road about 50 feet from us, I slammed on the brakes and waited. There were no other cars on the road for at least a quarter of a mile in either direction. As the first few animals climbed on the road and turned to face our car, I put the car in reverse and started backing up, and stopped again, unsure of what to do. Then, I saw the other car in the rear-view mirror.

It was a white SUV with the National Park Service logo on it. It came from behind us, passed our car and stopped close to the bison - probably about ten feet from the front of the herd. Then a ranger put his hand out through the window and waved a white piece of cloth. The bison seemed terrified of it and they scattered back into the grass. The SUV started again and we followed it. We were not bothered by the bison anymore that evening. We saw a dead bison at one point while driving, and although we didn't realize it at the moment, it could have provided us an excellent opportunity to see wolves or bears had we waited on the road and kept watch on the carcass. However, we decided to drive on.

We saw one more animal that evening. Before leaving Lamar Valley, we saw a large crowd of people on a bridge, looking at something down in the river below. It seemed like an ideal place to see bears safely, and we were very excited. As I found parking by the road and we walked towards the bridge, we met a man returning from there. "What did you see?" I asked eagerly. "There is some sort of animal," he replied, "but I don't know what it is." Finally, when we peered over the railing and looked down at the river below, we saw a pair of beavers swimming in the water. Later they came up on the bank and gave me opportunity to take pictures. The gentleman standing next to me had a professional-looking camera on a huge tripod with an immense camouflage-covered telephoto lens attached. With every press of the shutter, his camera shot off at least half a dozen frames. He looked most comical shooting the beaver when it was right below us, and at one point I thought his camera was going to topple over the railing and fall to the riverbed below. However, we didn't wait for it to happen, because we were tired and hungry.

Beavers
The Chinese dinner at the Canyon Village was a welcome change, and we took it to our room in the Canyon Lodge. We also brought some grocery supplies for our onward journey. This lodge was the best one on this trip so far and the room was nice with a view of the parking lot. We even saw some deer from our window. We turned in soon, because we wanted to leave early next morning for Grand Teton National Park.

Next morning, we started at six, when it was still dark. We were driving to the Jenny Lake campground in Grand Teton National Park and we wanted to secure a campsite at this most coveted first-come-first-serve campground in the park. The drive was expected to be two and a half hours, but we faced unexpected problems right after we started. First, there was dense fog and second, there were bison on the road. I had to drive very slowly to avoid them. As we crossed Hayden Valley, we had to stop for bison crossing the road in the headlights of idling cars in the fog. Later on, we avoided bison several times, walking about absent-minded on the road. At one place, we found a bison walking towards us in our (right) lane, and some idiot was driving a car in the oncoming (left) lane at the same speed as the bison, so that they could stay alongside it. People inside the car were taking photos. I could neither pass by the bison on our lane, nor go to the other lane and hit the oncoming car, so I just stopped and waited. The bison would have probably walked by our car if it had reached us, but when it was about twenty feet away, the driver of the other car sped up and left, leaving me free to bypass the bison via the oncoming lane.


Bison crossing in the fog
As we drove by the Yellowstone River, the fog rising off the water presented a pretty picture. I mostly ignored it because I wanted to reach that campground on time, but when the sun showed itself, like a giant egg yolk, over the treetops on the far bank of the river, I decided I needed to stop and capture this scene. So we stopped at a suitable pullout and photographed the sunrise.
Sunrise over Yellowstone River
Then, as the sun rose higher over the treetops and the first rays hit the leaves, we exited Yellowstone through its south entrance and sped southwards. The word 'sped' is just used in a manner of speaking, of course. The area between Yellowstone and Grand Teton is also full of the same animals that live in the parks, and so I still had to drive slowly. Just seven miles after leaving Yellowstone, we found a sign welcoming us to Grand Teton National Park. After a brief break and selfie-session, we entered Grand Teton National Park and proceeded towards Jenny Lake campground.



(To be continued...)