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June 2013 Archives

The High Country, Part 9


Tuesday morning brought some changes. For one thing, we had to pack for traveling again, since we were leaving the Dancing Bears Inn after two pleasant (for me, anyway) nights. For another, we were facing, for the first time, weather that was less than optimal for sightseeing. The temperature was in the fifties and clouds were lowered well below the peaks of the Lewis Range, but at least for the moment there didn't seem to be any precipitation.

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Even with that cloud cover, I wasn't in too much of a panic, largely due to the fantastic sights of the day before. Today's target area was the west end of Going-to-the-Sun Road, and in particular the upper end of McDonald Lake, where I'd been planning to search for an American Dipper. But having stumbled across one at Running Eagle Falls on Monday, I felt I could handle any weather-related disappointments on Tuesday.

Our main concern at the moment was getting breakfast, which involved a stop at a diner that I'll refrain from naming. Let's just note that when we walked in, it was being operated by two individuals, one of whom served as hostess, waitress, cook, and cashier, and the other of whom was a cat. That should have tipped us off to the potential for weirdness, but it wasn't until we sat down and the woman brought us silverware for four that the weirdness started to set in. We asked for coffee and ice water, and she brought us three coffees... and four ice waters, the fourth of which she set down at the empty end of the table. When she went back behind the counter for her pad, we began speculating about the identity of our tablemate. Harvey? The prophet Elijah? But when the woman returned for our order, we were finally able to impress upon her that there were only three of us, and she was free to cook breakfast for only those three. Alas, she appeared to take every minute necessary to cook for four, plus a few more, and delivered us a tasty breakfast that was appreciated, if not really worth the wait. The cat, meanwhile, parked nearby, rubbing against me periodically in hopes that part of my western omelet would be forthcoming. It wasn't.

From the diner we proceeded around the south end of Glacier toward a spot known as Goat Lick Overlook, a section of the Middle Fork Flathead River that runs through a steep-sided valley popular with mountain goats because of a deposit of salt found on one of the open hillsides. The Parks Service has set up a viewing platform across one of the tributary streams, and I was eager to use it in order to see some of the overlook's namesakes. I'm happy to say I was successful, at least in a technical sense:

DSC01108.JPGEven with my camera at full zoom, we were a loooong way away from this pair of goats, but with a little PhotoShop enhancement, maybe you can see them a little better:

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But there they were. Both of 'em. In that exact same position. And there they stayed, with essentially no movement, and no sudden appearances by other goats. And eventually, we decided it was time to head for the park's West Entrance.

(A brief sidelight: One of my favorite musical acts is the Mountain Goats, which consists basically of singer/songwriter/guitarist John Darnielle and whoever he brings along to the show or the studio; I follow him on Twitter--@mountain_goats, if you're wondering--and earlier that morning I had notified him that I would refrain from sending him any goat photos I might obtain, though I did offer to sing them one of his songs. "Tell them their beards are awesome," he'd shot back.)

By now the weather was starting to clear up a bit, and once we'd gotten to the West Entrance to the park, the sun was peeking out pretty regularly. This was excellent timing for us, because we were able to see that Lake McDonald is a real beauty, even if the mountains surrounding it aren't quite as stunning as those surrounding the east side lakes of St. Mary's or Two Medicine, primarily because of the trees; large stretches of the northern shore had obviously been burned at some time in the relatively recent past, leaving acre after acre empty of anything but bare trunks that gave the slopes an oddly purplish tint. We pushed eastward up a gradual slope, not nearly as steep as the eastern side had been, listening with intermittent frustration to the Sirius Radio channel that was carrying the UNC-South Carolina baseball game; it was an elimination matchup in the College World Series, and the Heels were coming off a shellacking at the hands of NC State, so we were good and worked up... and every few seconds, we'd come around a curve into the shadow of a mountain that blocked the satellite signal and start cursing.

The western side of Going-to-the-Sun was a good deal more crowded than the eastern side, with cars, trailers, pedestrians, and a few bikes making our fifteen-mile journey to the road closure a little more challenging than we'd like. Worse, there was Not. One. Parking. Place. in the lot beside the closure, so getting out to look around the creek for dippers really wasn't even an option. We turned around and headed back toward the lake, turning right on a road that crossed the creek and promised to connect to a trail that would lead us to McDonald Falls.

This side of the park, we knew, was the wetter side, where all the moisture in the east-moving clouds from the Pacific got dumped as the mountains raked it out. The forest was certainly green and moist and mossy. I never did figure out what this stuff, reminiscent of Spanish moss, actually was, but it certainly caught my eye:

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Inside the woods things were dim and all but silent. There was wind moving the trees, but the sound of the creek was soon inaudible, and birdsong was conspicuously absent. I heard one Swainson's Thrush sounding off its quip... quip... quip... call, but other than that, nada. Well, except for this gal:

DSC01115.JPGThe path grew longer, and the sound of water ever fainter, and with vague visions of Bilbo and the Dwarves' trek through Mirkwood lurking in the back of my mind (and a clear memory of the dipper the day before), I finally opted to turn back, remembering as I went that I was actually in an area where grizzlies live. I may have made a little more noise than usual returning to the car.

We were mostly done with the day's sightseeing, but the sun had finally pulled out from behind the clouds and given the chance to see Lake McDonald to its best advantage:

DSC01121.JPGI even got perhaps my favorite picture of Mom on the whole trip... but I was also irritated to learn later that I'd also somehow managed to capture a close look at an insect that landed on my lens:

DSC01125.JPGSoon we pulled into the Lake McDonald Lodge area for a quick bathroom break, and I observed a few familiar (well, by now) birds hanging around the area; Barn Swallows darted here and there, and a noisy couple of Warbling Vireos made their way in and out of some firs. There was also another bird that looked familiar, but for different reasons: it was a small flycatcher in a relatively distant tree, and my first glance at it told me it was likely to be a troublesome ID. The dozen or so flycatchers of the Empidonax genus are notoriously similar, all drab in color, roughly the same size, and bearing the same handful of field marks: a bicolored bill, two faint white wing bars, and a white eye ring. Without hearing their voices, you usually can't identify them, and this one wasn't singing. It was sitting boldly on the end of a dead evergreen branch, flying acrobatically out after prey, then returning to its perch.

That was odd. Most Empids don't hunt that way; they prefer less conspicuous perches, and they don't usually return to the same place. Taking a commanding spot and keeping it is the hunting behavior of their cousins, the equally drab but not quite identical wood-pewees. And as I looked, I could see no sign of white wing bars, nor any white eye ring. This was no Empid; this was a life bird--a Western Wood-Pewee.

That reversed the disappointment of the afternoon rather sharply, and when we came back into satellite range and were able to hear the end of UNC's victory, things picked up even more. It was time to leave the territory of the NPS and venture into new territory. All we had to now was drive down the valley of Flathead Lake, which we were surprised to discover had nearly the same level of scenic beauty that the parklands had, despite its being opened to private ownership and development:

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We munched on carrot sticks as we moved south, saving our appetites for whatever Missoula might offer us, and our patience was rewarded as we pulled into our hotel and discovered, across the parking lot, another franchise of the Montana Club. The weather had once again turned strange, with the winds whipping up and the light forming bizarre bands of almost colorless light on the horizon:

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But it didn't matter now: we were safe in our lodgings for the evening, and my streak of life birds was still intact. Tomorrow we'd see if it could continue through Idaho.

NEXT: EVERYTHING'S DUCKY (or AS FALLS IDAHO, SO FALLS IDAHO FALLS)


7:39 PM
.................................

The High Country, Part 8


Lunch was made more pleasant by a Moose Drool Brown Ale--one of a number of tasty western microbrews I sampled during the trip--but after I'd reached the bottom of the glass, it was time to head for the Two Medicine entrance and do something my folks and I hadn't done together in a while: take a boat trip.

DSC01065 Crop.jpgThe boat trips we'd taken in the past had always been pretty close to sea level, but this was not the case for today's voyage across Two Medicine Lake, two miles long and only a hundred-odd feet shy of being a mile high. Our craft was the 79-year-old wooden craft Sinopah, commanded by the genial Captain Clint, whose font of knowledge about the area was broad and deep and whose delivery was often very funny. Mind you, it was sometimes a little scary, too; the water, he informed us, was roughly 38 degrees Fahrenheit on this sunny June afternoon, so we might want to give swimming a miss:

DSC01070.JPGThe trip took only about a half-hour, but it offered us the most intimate views we'd had yet of Glacier's peaks, including the two that dominate the landscape, Sinopah and Rising Wolf. The latter lay on the north shore close to the eastern end of the lake, where the boathouse, camp store, and parking lot lay, while the former commands the western end, standing on the south side and shading the stream that flows into the lake. Here's our first look at the beautiful Sinopah, which stands over 8200 feet above sea level and, according to tradition, was named after a local chief's daughter:

DSC01048.JPGThe chief's daughter was famous primarily because of her love for a man named Hugh Monroe, a white fur trapper whose own fame began when he joined the Blackfeet. The notoriously xenophobic tribe were resistant at first, but once he had proven his loyalty by abandoning his old life and joining them on raids and hunting excursions, he was given the name Rising Wolf and eventually married the chief's daughter. Yes, it does sound strikingly like the plot of Avatar, doesn't it? But in any case, the mountain named after him stands across the water from his wife's namesake, and rises to an elevation of over 9500 feet:

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The name "Two Medicine," Clint told us, comes from the tradition that two Blackfeet women, each from a separate band, were independently wandering the area to find a suitable spot for a springtime "medicine" ritual when they met near the lake and decided their mutual presence was a sign. He also told us that the lake was both very deep (as glacial lakes tend to be) and originally barren; the waterfall below the stream leading out of the lake's south end was simply too high for fish to ascend, so the Parks Service had stocked it with five species of game fish. What he did not tell us was whether those fish would get rid of the evidence if we tossed someone overboard.

I know this is probably a result of my own children's having reached legal adulthood, but I was seriously contemplating the likely result of throwing someone else's kid overboard. Or possibly two of them. The younger, in all honestly, wasn't giving me nearly as much trouble as he was giving Mom and Dad, as he was sitting behind them and kicking the back of their seat through most of the trip, but his older brother was also making an annoyance of himself by running back and forth from his seat to the bow and back, not to mention incessantly asking Clint questions of dubious relevance ("Why do fish breathe water?"). Clint, for his part, handled the interrogation without resorting to sarcasm or harshness ("Because that's where they live, dude."), Still, I'd bet that he, like me, would have appreciated at least one parental attempt to inform Junior that maybe other people might want to ask something, or even just contemplate nature's beauty in relative peace and quiet

Luckily, Mom distracted us all by spotting something unexpected charging down the side of Rising Wolf: not a grizzly, or a bighorn sheep, or even a life bird for me. It was an avalanche:

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As you can see from the two photos, which were taken one after the other as quickly as I could work the camera's manual shutter, the mass of snow, rock, and mud is advancing down the slope rapidly. Scale was a bit difficult to judge, but given the size of the trees visible on the far side of the snow field, I can't imagine that the length of the avalanche's path could be measured in anything less than hundreds of yards. Because of the trees at lakeside, we couldn't see much of what happened at the end of the snow's journey downhill, but we didn't see any treetops vanishing. Still, it was an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime event, and I know Mom's going to be talking about it for a long, long time.

Before long, we'd reached the western terminus, where we let some hikers off and picked up a few returnees before setting out for our home port. The weather continued to be gorgeous, and our last look at Two Medicine Lake remains one of the most beautiful sights I saw in Glacier:

DSC01075.JPGBut Clint's words had stuck in my head: he'd mentioned a waterfall below the lake, and my map of the park showed it: Running Eagle Falls, which lay only a short distance (0.3 miles) from a parking lot along the main road. If I wanted to get out among the birds of the park, this would probably be one of my best chances. And as I described the trail and and falls to Mom and Dad, they agreed that this would be one trail they were willing to hike. Given Dad's bad knee and Mom's preference for staying with him, rather than birding--not really her thing--I hadn't really expected them to be coming along on most of my walks, so this was an unusual development.

The trail led from the lot through a stretch of forest (largely evergreen, as most woods in these parts were), but once again our enjoyment was tempered by the presence of one of our least favorite species: Homo sapiens. One couple wandered down the trail accompanied by their daughter, who might have been four, and each parent was not only all but ignoring her, but carrying a lit cigarette as well; had the area not been fairly well wet down by recent rains, I would probably have said something about maybe SETTING A NATIONAL PARK ON FIRE, but I bit my tongue and let them get ahead of us, which unfortunately left us following their trail of smoke. There was another group, perhaps six or seven in number, featuring a couple of adults, a teenager or two, and an indeterminate number of small children, at least one of which was in stroller. They presented no fire hazard, but they were being loud enough that I didn't consider their proximity likely to help my birding.

Luckily, the woods soon ended, and we found ourselves at the intersection of two gorgeous creeks. From the north flowed Dry Fork, over which a plank bridge was laid, allowing us to cross and see the falls Clint had talked about pouring down into Two Medicine Creek, with Rising Wolf looming over it:

DSC01088.JPGIt was here that I found my greatest annoyance with the large group of tourists who'd led the way down the path, as they were standing to the right of the falls, above the rocks you can see at the bottom corner of the pic above--standing on the far side of the safety rail. This was a problem because of my ethical obligations as a Wilderness First Responder. Part of my training involves a commitment to helping those in need in the wilderness, and I was having visions of the unpleasantness I would have to go through if one of these yahoos slipped and fell into the 38-degree waters.

Luckily, there were no splashes from upstream--no audible ones, anyway--and I had other things to distract me, and I don't just mean the falls themselves. There were, for example, these bizarre flowering plants on the shoreline, which we later found out are called beargrass:

DSC01083.JPGThere was the startling clarity of the water, as well as the two major colors of what Clint informed us were mudstone; the redder version comes from geological layers where more oxygen was present, leading the iron in the greenish stone to rust:

DSC01080.JPGAs I bent to snap the photo of the creek bed, however, I was disturbed by a sudden call and a dark silhouette whirring down from the falls. I had just enough time to note the grayish plumage, the short tail, and the teetering flight before it reached the confluence and hung a left up Dry Fork. There was no time for focusing the camera, let alone training binoculars on it, but there was no question in my mind: I had just seen my first American Dipper. Not my best look at a life bird, no, but it was in arguably the best setting, as Mom and Dad proved by posing there:

DSC01085.JPGAnd with that, we were done with the falls, done with Two Medicine, and ready to head back to East Glacier for dinner. Mom and Dad walked ahead of me, as I was still toting binoculars and hoping to see something unusual, which I did: one of the aforementioned yahoos, in this case a teenager sporting a close-cropped black mohawk and a bright pink t-shirt, came barreling down the trail from the falls at full speed, no doubt terrifying every bird in the forest into silence. I gritted my teeth, wondering if standing and looking into the woods with binoculars is somehow a signal to some people to make as much noise as humanly possible, while his family came more gradually up the trail and past me. Luckily, one of the birds I'd heard was still calling near the back of a stand of firs, and with patience, I was finally able to glimpse the telltale orange patches of an American Redstart, my first of the year. It was a good bird, and I was ready to pull up stakes, but I was suddenly distracted by a chik note and the sight of a small bird darting into the low growth by the path. My binocs were immediately back up, giving me a brief look at the olive back, and a few seconds later I could see grey head with a white eye-ring--no, actually, it was a pair of white arcs that didn't quite form a complete ring. A western specialty, this: MacGillivray's Warbler, which rarely comes east of the Rockies. And another lifer. Running Eagle Falls had been unusually generous to me.

And with that, it was time for food. We made our way into East Glacier, sauntered into Serrano's, and had what may have been my favorite restaurant meal of the trip: the Enchiladas Especial, combining chicken breast, salsa verde, jack cheese, and sour cream and wrapped in organic blue corn tortillas. Sated with nature's goodness and Mexico's bounty, there was only one thing left to do before retiring: get a picture of the sign out front:

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NEXT:
BEARDED IN THEIR LAIR
(or IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE)


10:05 PM
.................................

The High Country, Part 7


Here's the thing about Glacier National Park: scale.

Grand Teton NP is stunning from the very first glimpse--a visual slap in the face. The spectacular ridges of the Teton Range bursting forth from the treetops cannot be ignored. Your head whirls round to look at them every time you try to look at anything else in the park.

But Glacier? Glacier just keeps going.

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Glacier is not a slap, but a full-on beat-down. You can look at many, many things in there--lakes, trees, birds, streams, falls, islands, hills, meadows, cliffs. And yet, even if you're not looking at them, you're always aware of the mountains. You don't NEED to look at them. The Crown of the Continent, as they call it, stands behind and above everything. It's not as flashy as Grand Teton, but it has more height, more breadth, more depth.

Alas, we couldn't plumb those depths in two days--not even close. We couldn't even see the most spectacular part of the park: the central section of Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is the part of the fifty-mile road that crosses the Continental Divide, and it usually doesn't get opened to the public until late June because it takes that long for the plow crews to clear the road of snow. There were around fifteen miles of road open on either end, and since we were spending the night on the eastern edge of the park, we opted to make our way up the eastern section of the road, leaving the west section for the next day.

DSC00982.JPGIt didn't take long for the need to pull over and take pictures to strike us. Here you can see Dad looking over St. Mary's Lake toward the 9000-foot peaks at its headwaters. GTTS Road follows the north shore for the length of the lake, so we had its waters in sight for much of the drive.

DSC00986.JPGWe did not see much wildlife on the road, with one exception: ground squirrels were fairly frequent visitors to the roadsides, Except for their narrow tails, they looked more or less like our eastern Gray Squirrels, with the same curious, upright posture. They were also far better than our campus squirrels at staying out of traffic. And considering how often our eyes were drawn from the blacktop up toward the horizon, that's a good thing.

At Sunrift Gorge, through which a rushing stream churns down from the glacier less than two miles above, we once again parked the car to get a better look. The water was spectacularly clear, as well as noisy, as it ran alongside the path underneath the road:

DSC01007.JPGI also snapped a picture of Mom at the end of the bridge:

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A mile or two up the road from the gorge, we parked to look out over the evergreens into the deep valley, and as I peered out, I was startled by something I still get every once in a while: the thrill of not knowing what the hell I'm looking at. My overwhelming impression was YELLOW; a bright, orangey shade of it (not unlike that of my new t-shirt, now that I think about it...), but with black wings as well. And the yellow was not in the place I was used to, either: the familiar American Goldfinch has a yellow chest and back and head, but its rump is pure white, and this bird's rump blazed just as yellow as the rest of it. It sailed out to a dead branch and perched, right at the end of my camera's zoom powers, but just within those of my binoculars. And then it turned its head toward me at last: a bright orange-red head that proclaimed it a male Western Tanager, my first lifer in the park.

Before long, however, we were at the Jackson Glacier Overlook, and the road was closed to all but foot and bike traffic, though there was no snow visible on the ground there at all. I took a brief stroll beyond the gates, hoping to see an interesting bird or two, or maybe a glimpse of the plows working on the upper reaches of the road, but other than one persistently singing Wilson's Warbler, there were only trees and clouds and, always, the crowns of the mountains.

Making our way down, we were once again struck by the beauty of St Mary's Lake, as well as the tiny speck of Goose Island, which somehow sets off the massive peaks around the lake perfectly:

DSC01034.JPGReaching the bottom of GTTS Road, we turned south again, heading down the curving, vertiginous highway toward a different entrance to the park: Two Medicine, which lies only 4 miles from the train depot in East Glacier. We had the whole afternoon ahead of us. And this time we were determined to get further into the park than the road would take us.

NEXT: FAHRENHEIT O38 (or SIT DOWN, YOU'RE ANNOYING THE BOAT)


10:19 PM
.................................

The High Country, Part 6


Our Sunday-afternoon trip north toward Glacier National Park was accompanied by a variety of interesting features, including the obligatory snow-capped mountain, but also some puzzling, if undeniably whimsical, historical signage at some of the rest stops:

DSC00963.JPGThe road took us east and then north, so we left the bosom of the mountains and instead headed over the high plains carved out by the Missouri River, but to our left, we could always see the peaks. We were also aware that the wind was rising, giving occasional nudges to the car as we came into open spaces. Around an hour north of Great Falls, we turned west and headed onto the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, a largely empty agricultural area; we'd known that the eastern side of Glacier was less popular with tourists, most of whom apparently come to the western side through Missoula or the Flathead Lake region, but this was by far the least populated area we'd yet come through on our travels. Soon, however, we had reached into the little town of East Glacier Park and our lodgings for the next two nights:

DSC01095.JPGThe Inn had a number of ground-level motel rooms, but also one larger cabin, which was where the three of us found ourselves. It had an interesting, funky, beach-house feel, with cabinets galore, hardwood floors, two big flatscreen TVs, wifi access, a nicely appointed kitchen, and a queen-sized bed for each of us:

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The only real problem, as you can see from the lower right picture, is that we were right across the street from the train station, and yes, a good many trains came through during the night. Several windows were also without blinds or curtains, which left Mom & Dad in particular feeling as though the room wasn't dark enough. (Admittedly, since they were in the room with all the sofas and the two beds, they had a lot more windows to worry about than I did.) Still, it was a comfy spot, and we made immediate use of the washer & dryer to get our laundry situation into better shape. The next morning we'd be going into the park proper, and we wanted to look our best.

Before retiring that night, we took care of our dinner needs at Luna's, a small diner up the hill past the tracks and toward the park, where we got that rarest of things: a restaurant staff that actually knew how to respond when Dad told them, "I'm allergic to garlic." Immediately, the waitress turned to Luna herself, who was sitting in the booth behind us, going over recipe cards, and before long she had produced a list of all the salad dressings, entrees and sides that Dad could safely eat. We'd already had one wait who failed to consider everything that garlic might end up in--on that occasion, we're fairly sure it was garlic in the side dish of hash browns that kept Dad up all night--but we were most gratified by both the food and the service at Luna's. (Yes, I tipped heavily.) They also had their own interesting signage:

DSC00964.JPG(I did not try the huckleberry pie, but I did enjoy a huckleberry iced tea.)

It had been a busy Sunday, but as I booted up my computer to total all the species I'd seen before bed, I was feeling some minor anxiety about the next day's birding. Despite the morning's varied and amazing sights, I was still in need of a life bird for the state of Montana, so I figured I'd have to be on my toes the next day... but as I tallied up everything I'd seen with David, I suddenly realized something. Though my life list did include two gulls I'd seen in California--Western and Heermann's--it did not actually contain the California Gull. And the first bird I'd actually identified at Warm Springs had been a California. I'd recorded a lifer without even noticing.

And the next day we'd be heading into our third national park for the trip, one containing everything from American Dippers to Great Grey Owls to grizzly bears.

NEXT: WHERE DIPPERS DARE
(or GOING-PARTWAY-TO-THE-SUN ROAD)


4:22 PM
.................................

The High Country, Part 5


Warm Springs is, among other things, the home of Montana's state mental hospital, so naturally there were some cracks from online friends when I mentioned our birding destination for Sunday morning. Still, my friend and host David Abrams had done a little research with the local birders, who'd told him that the ponds and impoundments of the area offered a rich variety of bird life, so that's where he pointed his car. Rolling eastward on I-90, we passed by the impressive smokestack of the old smelter in Anaconda, the company town a few mile from Butte where the Anaconda Mine's copper was processed. Along with its neighboring town, Opportunity, it has the distinction of appearing on my favorite highway sign ever:

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But a few miles east of this sign, there was no time for such whimsy. No, we were getting serious about birding. David hadn't done much of it, though he had taken an ornithology course at the University of Oregon some years back, but he had both my father's binoculars and twenty years of experience in identifying Army insignia to guide him, so I felt as though he'd be a capable observer of field marks. He also volunteered to serve as photographer, which is how I discovered just how bright my new yellow t-shirt from Sierra Trading Post really was:

DSC00930.JPG(And again, note the horizon near my head: snowy mountains, as per usual.)

The first bird we spotted was one of the many gulls I'd been observing over the past few days, but always from the car, rendering identification all but impossible. Stationary next to the flow of Silver Bow Creek, however, I had no trouble recognizing the bird flying just overhead as a California Gull. I could also see a flycatcher perched in some scrub, one producing the "Pikachu!" call I'd heard at length during a trip to West Virginia a while back: a Willow Flycatcher. There was even a small, teetering shorebird hugging the shore of the creek, the first Spotted Sandpiper I'd seen in several years.

The ponds were, as promised, full of waterfowl, even in June, and we logged such unsurprising water-loving birds as Blue-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, and Gadwall, as well as a few more uncommon (to me, at least) species like White Pelican and Cinnamon Teal, but we reasoned that we'd see even more if we could get up to the top of the levee. This reasoning led to a long hike up a dirt road that ran upslope from the creek bed, giving us a good look at the scenery, but frustrating looks at a couple of birds. First, there was the Common Yellowthroat that was loosing its witchety witchety call to beat the band, but simply Would. Not. come out of the cover of its bush so that David could see what it looked like. Then there was the streaky grey sparrow that perched at the crown of a small tree and hurled its call out for at least five straight minutes without betraying a single clearly distinctive field mark. Later online research on its voice, however, revealed it as a Vesper Sparrow, which gave me a certain degree of relief.

It was while we stood in the road that the biggest surprise of the morning--up to that point--appeared over us: a quartet of Great Blue Herons, their broad wings flapping almost in unison, flying in formation like a squadron of pelicans. In my experience, it's unusual enough to see more than one of these solitary birds at a time; to see four adults in full breeding plumage flying together was simply unprecedented. Naturally, I was too flabbergasted to remember my camera, but I don't think I'll be forgetting that image anytime soon.

Eventually the road merged with the top of the levee, exposing a large stretch of scrubland to our left, along with a "Red-shafted" Flicker flying in and out of the cottonwoods. The sun was getting pretty fierce, but we were getting close to the dam and the spillway through which the Silver Bow flowed, so we pressed on past a few historical markers about the area, which had originated as a series of tailing ponds for the local mines:

DSC00937.JPGBut to our surprise, from the top of the levee we could see almost nothing in the way of birds. A Northern Harrier was pursued over the water by a hostile blackbird, and a few Canada Geese led their goslings from the road to the safety of the water, but it looked as though we'd seen everything the place had to offer. Baked by the sun and thinking about brunch, we trudged back toward the car.

Less than a hundred yards from the parking lot, however, David suddenly stopped following me and peered into a small stand of trees. Something big had flown into it. "What you got?" I asked.

DSC00944.JPGIt was a Great Horned Owl. These birds live almost everywhere in North America, but because they're largely nocturnal, you're a great deal more likely to hear them than see them. I myself was now seeing only the third adult GHO I'd ever seen, so I took a good long look, as well as a number of pictures. Why it was flying around in broad daylight we didn't know, but it didn't seem inclined to go anywhere, at least not until I got a little too close and it flew to another tree.

Once it had moved, however, I took a better look at the trees around us, and I realized that it wasn't alone. There was another owl in the low branches--a juvenile.

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I haven't seen a lot of GHOs, but thanks to having been tipped off to the location of a nest in Ithaca NY's Stuart Park a few years back, I did actually get to observe a pair of owlets, who were basically balls of white woolly fluff with hideous demon-Muppet faces. By contrast, this guy was obviously moving toward adulthood, what with having working flight feathers, but I was amused that his head was still basically white woolly fluff, even down to the stubby little "horns." I was also aware, very quickly, that this owlet was not alone.

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As you can see from David's proximity, the second owlet was perching much closer to the ground, and much closer to the state of denial. The legend of the ostrich's burying its head in the sand is just that--a legend--but this owlet appeared firmly of the opinion that with its head in the thick leaves, it was invisible. We tested its belief in that opinion by approaching it quite closely, to the point where we were somewhat worried that its parent might come after us, but we remained safe from its talons long enough to get the pictures we wanted:

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As nice as that formation of herons had been, this was clearly the birding highlight of the day--maybe even the whole trip--and it was time to head home, pack up, and meet Mom and Dad for brunch. This we accomplished with the help of the Montana Club, a restaurant recommended by David that offered everything we needed: excellent omelets, plentiful cups of coffee, and a chance to bleed off some of our owl-related adrenaline. After that, it was time to pose for one last photo together. It's a photo of something even more unusual than a squadron of herons or a juvenile owl in daylight. Here you can see, on either side of the frame, the smile of a writer who who woke up, went birding with another writer, and shyly asked for a signature in his copy of the other's book.

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 And with that, it was time to say goodbye and climb into the car again. We were heading for a place so far north it was called Glacier.

NEXT: ADVENTURES IN BOOKKEEPING
(or THE CABIN NEAR THE WOODS)


9:39 AM
.................................

The High Country, Part 4


Awakening on Saturday, we had one plan in mind: to get to Cody's Sierra Trading Post outlet store so Mom could look for... clothes, I guess. I mean, she could have bought a tent or a canoe, but it would have been tough to ship it home. I found a couple of deep-sale items for myself: a bright blue technical shirt and a bright yellow cotton T, while I spotted two things for Kelly that weren't too expensive: a lime green technical shirt and a black T (which was not, as I had thought, all-cotton) emblazoned with the New Balance Robot Marathon logo, featuring a pair of runners sprinting away from the giant robot breaking through the brick wall behind them. All in all, not bad for under $40.

From there, however, we had to confront the choice before us: either drive back into Yellowstone on the way to Butte, or head due north and pick up I-90 westward. Either way, we would need to go 300 miles, which we could do faster by skipping Yellowstone, but we'd hardly plumbed the park's depths on the previous day's drive-through. Also entering into our consideration were our food and lodging arrangements; Mom & Dad would be staying at the Best Western, which allowed them a little more control over their dining and sleeping situation, while I dined and spent the evening with friends: the estimable Mr. David Abrams, author of the acclaimed Iraq War novel Fobbit, and his wife Jean. Since we didn't want to keep David & Jean waiting on us, we decided it might be wiser to forgo revisiting Yellowstone, of which we had certainly seen a good deal, and think about heading back into it later in the trip.

With that, we shifted into Drive Mode, with Dad, Mom, and I trading off time behind the wheel roughly every hour, which allowed us to not some of Montana's interesting features: the liberal laws regarding casinos, which in most states operate only on federal land... the 75-mph speed limits on most interstate (and some state) highways, which allow good drivers to make great time and bad drivers to terrify the good ones... and of course the Crazy Mountains:

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Like the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park, the Crazies just sort of--happen. They're a small cluster of high, snowy, ridiculously scenic peaks rising up more or less unconnected from any of the chains or ridges around them. Despite their proximity to the town of Bozeman and I-90, they don't appear to have any development--no ski resorts, for example--and they're not even listed on all the maps. They were, however, the most intriguing thing we saw during our drive, so I took lots of pictures.

The climb up over the Continental Divide was lengthy, but not the brutal, car-breaking climb we had feared, and almost immediately after cresting it, we found ourselves descending rapidly into the town of Butte, home of Montana Tech, the massive and now-abandoned works of the Anaconda Copper Mine, and the brand-new antique/home decor store that Jean Abrams has opened: the Backyard Bungalow:

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As you can imagine from the above, the Abrams' house is a fascinating place, full of old furniture and signage and objets d'art from sources I couldn't even begin to guess at. The house itself is a beautiful old Craftsman with a front porch, a back deck, a finished basement and a second floor, not to mention a beautifully refitted kitchen. The kitchen was where David and Jean first took me, once we'd said good night to Mom & Dad, picked up a few beers for dinner, and and broken into the bar downstairs so that David could let me sample a very good local bourbon. Once we'd returned to the kitchen, he poured me a brown ale, made a salad, and mixed up the filling for grilled jalapeno poppers. To our surprise, the peppers were so powerful that their odor actually stung our eyes a bit. That suggested a retreat to the deck, where David proceeded to fire up the grill and prepared three enormous steaks:

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Not satisfied with this gargantuan meatfest, David went back to the grill to tend the poppers, which he did with consummate grace:

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And with that, the best meal I ate in Montana was no more. Jean retired to the house, but David and I spent several more hours on the deck, talking in person about the subjects we're usually talking about online. Though I've known him for over a decade, this was only the second time we'd met face to face. (The first was a gathering over tapas as the BookExpo America convention in Washington, DC, a few years back.) We initially met as contributors to the late, lamented Readerville.com, and since then we've interacted on Facebook, Twitter, BookBalloon.com, and of course David's blog, The Quivering Pen, where I wrote a guest entry on Catch-22. As you might expect, the conversation quickly turned to books: the ones we've been writing (he's working on a novel called Double, and I'm of course editing Along Those Lines), the ones we've been reading (he was finishing James Salter's All That Is, while I had just started Charles Fishman's The Big Thirst), and the ones we really ought to have read by now (he confessed to not having read Lolita yet; I admitted I hadn't gotten around to The House of Mirth. Shamed! Shamed we are!).

But after a long evening of book talk and fine food and drink, it was time for sleep. David and I would be getting up early to do the one thing I hadn't done all day: birding. This was the first day I'd spent in the Rockies without logging a life bird. It would also be the last.

NEXT: WARM SPRINGS AND GLACIERS
(or A SUBCOMMITTEE OF OWLS)


11:19 PM
.................................

The High Country, Part 3


Our interaction with Yellowstone Park on this trip should be understood in the light of several important facts:

1) We were coming into the park--probably the most popular in the National Park System--on a Friday afternoon. In other words, we were expecting hordes of weekend tourists, and were thus a little leery of heading deep into the better-traveled areas, especially to the western section near Old Faithful.

2) Dad had been to Yellowstone before and had seen the most famous geological features, including Old Faithful, on his previous trip, while Mom and I were interested primarily (but not exclusively) in the park's wildlife, which would not necessarily be visible at any particular location.

3) On the same day we drove in through Yellowstone's south entrance, we had already been up a mountain in a tram and had driven all along the edge of the Grand Tetons

4) Our room for the night was in Cody, Wyoming, a good 100 miles from the southern entrance.

This may help explain why we opted to do a drive-through of the park, rather than targeting a particular geographic feature to visit. We also figured that if we decided there was something we really wanted to see, we could come through on Saturday morning on our way to our next stop (Butte, MT). Some may claim we gave short shrift to one of the continent's true glories, and there's validity to that claim, but after the astonishing beauty of the Tetons, I for one felt I probably wouldn't appreciate those glories for at least a few hours.

And thus we headed into the center of the park, following the ravine containing the Lewis River, past mile after mile of forest still recovering from the devastating fires of 1988. Spry young evergreens yearned upward toward the level of the pale, denuded trunks remaining after a quarter-century, and the far hillsides were still littered with fallen trees, but in places the old trees (or at least parts of them) could be seen to have survived the fires:


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Eventually we reached the caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano--and yes, I was mildly nervous the entire time that it might choose THIS weekend to finally blow its top--and after a few more miles began curling northeastward. There we saw the first traces of steam belching forth from the earth--the smokeholes of the West Thumb Geyser Basin--and the waters of Yellowstone Lake.

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The high winds and cloudiness of the afternoon in no way spoiled the beauty of the scene, nor did they prevent me from calling for Dad to halt the car as we passed by a sheltered bay behind a long grey sandbar. I could see that a raft of ducks had formed in the lee, and I wanted a closer look. Borrowing his binoculars, which have a higher magnification factor than mine (10X instead of 8X), I strode rapidly down the windward side of the bar, fearing that the ducks would take off as soon as my head popped up high enough to be visible. Luckily, by the time I entered their view, I could see the white crescents in front of their yellow eyes. They were Barrow's Goldeneyes, another lifer.

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We paid a brief visit to a roadside toilet, allowing me a look--much better than my first--at a pair of Clark's Nutcrackers, who treated the air as a convenient substance to move through, using as little effort as possible. One of them leaped down from a treetop and didn't even bother to spread its wings until it was a few feet above the ground. I remembered David Quammen's brief, lovely description of their cousins and decided it applied to them as well: "Crows are bored." It was a delightful look at a beautiful bird.

What we hadn't seen yet, however, was the classic Yellowstone traffic jam. We hadn't spotted any bears or moose or elk or anything that might bring a line of cars to a sudden halt, nor had we seen the cars. That would change soon after we turned east toward Fishing Bridge. As we came over the newborn Yellowstone River, we saw dozens of people with cameras all turned on the marshy ground between the road and the lakeshore, A bit of observation revealed a number of birds in the water--Canada Goose, Cinnamon Teal, even a trio of White Pelicans--but nothing that would cause cars to pull over, unless, y'know, they were filled with people like me. There had to be something else down there,

There was:

DSC00894.JPGThat is Canis latrans (or if you're Chuck Jones, Carnivorous vulgaris), better known as the coyote, working its way across the marsh toward the three pelicans. If you've watched as many cartoons as I have, you know already that this attempt at predation was doomed to failure, but alas, it was nothing close to the spectacular sort of failure one can attain only with ACME products; the pelicans simply decided they didn't want to be bothered and paddled rapidly out of the coyote's reach. It was, however, by far the best and most extended look I've ever had at a large wild carnivore; my two previous sightings of coyotes were much briefer, my sightings of black bears have generally been short and/or at a greater distance, and I've never seen a wild grizzly, wolf, or cougar. For me, it was well worth pulling into the parking lot and breaking out the camera.

In a few miles, however, we found ourselves without a convenient parking lot, and the long-expected wildlife-based traffic jam appeared before us as if by magic: there were bison.

DSC00899.JPGDad slowed for the traffic, but as you're not actually allowed to stop in the roadway for purposes of photography, this was about as good a shot as I could manage.

From there, however, Yellowstone's scenery faded somewhat. The curves of the road around the lake's north shore (and the occasional spout of geyser steam) caught our attention from time to time, but in general, I think our eyes were tired, and there was still an hour to go before we reached Cody. We climbed higher and higher, toward the park's East Entrance, passing through the stark and oddly beautiful remnants of a fire far more recent than the big burn of '88, where spring green was carpeting the earth below the bare trunks:

DSC00903.JPGBut there was one more surprise as we crested the last hill and descended into the valley that led to Cody: the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. Somehow not one of us had known anything about this road, which proceeds from the high forests outside Yellowstone down into the beautiful Shoshone River valley through mudstone formations resembling nothing so much as the pillars and blocks of southern Utah or Arizona. We were simply waiting to see the town roll up under us, and here it came, still more scenery that we simply couldn't ignore. Mom was behind the wheel now, and Dad and I were looking about us like, well, gawking tourists. A day that had started with a ride up a Teton was now finishing with a ride down something like Capitol Reef, and the land around us remained ridiculously beautiful, especially against the waters of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir.

DSC00906.JPGWe rolled into Cody ready for a good night's sleep, uncertain about what we'd be doing the next day, but knowing that when next we slept, it would be in Butte, Montana--300 miles away.

NEXT: AUTHOR! AUTHOR! (or AT THE MOUNTAINS OF CRAZINESS)


8:14 PM
.................................

The High Country, Part 2


Waking up in Wyoming showed me three things. First, I knew now that the cool dry air in the mountain west makes for terrific summertime sleeping. Summer in the south, even in the relatively northern state of Virginia, produces air that is warm, wet, and actively heavy, which can leave the sleeper feeling as though he is lying under a wet, flaccid mammal--perhaps a manatee. Second, that dry air does leave one a bit parched, at least if one has been sleeping with his mouth open. And third, the pollen that had given me hay fever six weeks ago in Virginia was still flying around out in Wyoming. As a result, we paid a quick call to the pharmacy while we were grabbing breakfast (once again at the Virginian) and got my upper respiratory tract back in order.

Stop number one was Teton Village, which lies on the far side of the hills on Jackson's border. Those hills obscure the fact that Jackson is all but under the Grand Tetons, but once you drive beyond them, the mountains are Right. Smack. There. And if you want to get close to them, you're in luck: the Jackson Hole Tram is there to give you a ride to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, 10,446 feet above sea level.

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The 15-minute ride starts every half-hour, so Mom, Dad, and I spent some time in line watching the enormous colony of Cliff Swallows that nests in the eaves of the lower cable engine. When the doors to the car finally opened, I grabbed one of the very few seats, positioning myself near the front in order to watch the ground and trees below on the way up. This proved a very good strategy, as it allowed me my first glimpse of a Clark's Nutcracker flying over the rocks below me.

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There are five towers along the length of the tram, each of which supports six cables: two that actually move the cars up/down and four that simply support the weight of the cars and their passengers (who can number up to sixty). And at about the time you're thinking you're about to reach the top, another ridge (and another tower) is revealed beyond the one you're approaching. For example:

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Eventually, however, we reached the top of Rendezvous Mountain, and I was now at the highest elevation I'd ever reached outside of an airplane. That lofty spot offered a variety of beautiful views, but the most arresting in some ways was the one to the north: the peaks of the Tetons. Since my folks weren't planning on staying at the top, we persuaded a family from Alabama to snap a photo of us before Mom and Dad joined them on the downward journey. I'd be staying on top for a while to do some birding.

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The summit was, unsurprisingly, almost entirely bare rock, except for where there was still snow. It's well above the treeline, and except for a handful of hardscrabble evergreens, there's no cover for birds. I should not have been surprised, then, to see so few, but with my new trekking poles in hand, I bid adieu to Mom and Dad and set out downslope. A few hundred yards down from the summit, I found one White-crowned Sparrow perched atop a spruce, singing gamely, but no one answered him. I wandered probably half a mile down the trail, thinking unhappily about all the height I'd have to make up when I turned back, but there was simply nothing there to see. Well, there was the amazing scenery, sure, but certainly nothing with feathers. Just stuff like this:

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When I finally turned back (VERY glad to have my trekking poles, which made the uphill journey considerably easier), I finally got a little birding luck--but not much. A small dark bird whipped by in the wind, calling jeew jeew jeew and vanishing over the ridgeline. Not much to go one there. A little farther up the hill, though, I got a glimpse of two birds. I couldn't quite ID them at first, thanks to their gymnastic flight in the summit's high winds, but luckily, they ducked into the lee of a low spruce, which gave me time to get close enough to see their pinkish sides. They soon took off again, but as they did so, I spotted a crucial field mark: white stripes on either side of their tails. They were "Pink-sided" Juncos, the fourth variation of the Dark-eyed Junco I've logged. The bird I'd really hoped to see at the summit, however, still proved elusive. Mel White's book had told me that the Black Rosy-finch nested amongst the scree and snow fields, but I sure couldn't see one. I checked my Sibley guide to make sure that the rocks and snow were REALLY the right nesting ground--they were--but I also noted that the Rosy-finch's call was listed as jeew jeew jeew. I'd already seen one.

Returning to the bottom of the mountain, I jumped into the car and headed north into Grand Teton National Park. We were heading for lunch at the Jenny Lake Lodge, about which dad had heard good things, but we found ourselves unable to get very far without being ambushed. Repeatedly. By scenery. Click on any of these shots if you don't believe me:

DSC00856.JPGYes, apparently the scenery actually CHEWED OFF part of that guy's trailer. AND IT KEPT ATTACKING:

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Frankly, it was getting kind of silly after a while. We'd drive a few miles, then look back at the SAME MOUNTAINS WE'D BEEN SEEING FOR THE LAST HOUR and have to pull over for more pictures. I was able to break my gaze away from the Tetons long enough to log a couple of birds--a Broad-tailed Hummingbird (a lifer) near the entrance, a Clay-colored Sparrow calling in a sagebrush flat--but the creature that most drew our attention was this mysterious critter that rolled up to the Lodge while were dining:


DSC00866.JPGHis size suggested a beaver, but his bushy tail denied that possibility. The park has yellow-bellied marmots, but this guy seemed both too large and too dark. Hoary marmots are big enough, but they live a bit farther north--up in Glacier NP, for example--while groundhogs, which this guy strongly resembled, don't make it into the Tetons either.

We moved north from Jenny Lake, heading in the direction of our hotel in Cody, but the Tetons jumped out at us a couple more times, such as here at Willow Flats:

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Eventually, however, we escaped the clutches of the scenery and got back onto the road where we'd be safe, we assumed, from the temptation to pull over and take pictures every few miles.

About half an hour later, we crossed the border into Yellowstone National Park.


NEXT: REVENGE OF THE SCENERY (or DUCK COYOTE DUCK!)


1:54 PM
.................................

The High Country


Feeling rushed and frazzled at the end of the school year, I knew some time away from my usual stomping grounds would help me get my head together. Luckily, my parents and I had been planning a trip away from those grounds for some time, and the day after Woodberry's final faculty meeting of the year, I hopped a plane to Salt Lake City. Mom and Dad had been touring Yosemite and Nevada and Idaho for a week already, but they drove back to SLC to meet me at the airport. From the parking deck, I could see already that I was surrounded by high peaks, far craggier than the round blue ridges of my Appalachian homeland, and that even in June, they were snowy. I would not be completely out of sight of such mountains for the next ten days.

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We headed north into Idaho along I-15, giving me a look at the western birds I hadn't seen in some time--Black-billed Magpies, Western Meadowlarks, Western Kingbirds--and settled for the evening in Pocatello. My recently purchased National Geographic Guide to Birdwatching Sites (Western U.S.) identified the nearby Caribou National Forest as a good birding spot, and author Mel White did not steer me wrong: no sooner had we pulled over to park near the Kinney Creek trail than I spotted my first lifer of the trip, a Lazuli Bunting singing proudly atop a small tree. Black-headed Grosbeaks, Spotted Towhees, and my first Green-tailed Towhees appeared as I made my way up the trail, and a Golden Eagle (visible to the upper left in the photo below) calmly surveyed the scene from its perch atop a juniper.

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Back near the trailhead I spotted a Warbling Vireo, plus a Yellow Warbler that was chasing a darker bird--Virginia's Warbler, lifer #3--and hopped back in the car. We were spending the night in Jackson, WY, and there was a lot of driving yet to do. For much of the trip, we followed the Snake River, which provided occasional gorgeous vistas such as this one:

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Flying over the gorge were scores of birds, but their rapid movement made it impossible to identify them; all I could be sure about was that they were swallows. Probably. Or possibly one (or more?) of the various western species of swift? All I knew was that I'd have to see one standing still before I could ID it. Luckily, soon after we crossed the border, we pulled down into the gorge in hopes of a photo op. I got one, but not the one I'd expected:

DSC00777.JPGYes, it was a Violet-green Swallow, and I had my first life bird in Wyoming.

Dad had visited Jackson before, but like my hometown of Chapel Hill, the place had changed over the years, becoming more focused on the tourists who might spin through town than the natives who actually had to live there. The downtown was especially egregious in this regard, but we did venture into one spot that Dad remembered fondly, where I ate a pretty good elk burger, but had to settle for bottled beer, as they have nothing on draft:

DSC00787.JPGIt's a great-looking joint inside, with saddles for barstools, but not one that looks like a major draw for the locals.

We spent the night at the Buckrail Lodge, which had woodsy-looking cabinish rooms and a pleasant little garden from which I could view the evening sky and note that the Eurasian Collared-Dove, introduced from Europe somewhere in the southeastern US, has now reached the Grand Tetons. It also contains this sculpture, which gives the viewer the unsettling impression that the cowboy is somehow pissing up a rope:

DSC00794.JPGAnd then it was time for dinner, which we decided to eat a little farther from the center of town. The name of the place, however, struck me as a little amusing: the Virginian Restaurant. I mean, here I was a good two thousand miles from home, eating at the Virginian. It wouldn't be the only indication I'd see that the people who settled the west sometimes felt a certain nostalgia--or at least a certain ambivalence--about their new home.

NEXT: THE SCENIC ROUTE (or RENDEZVOUS AT TEN THOUSAND FEET)


5:12 PM
.................................

Okay, a month off is excessive, even for me, the uncrowned king of long-term blogging. I'll just dispense with the excuses, if you don't mind, and note just a couple of things that have drawn my attention over the past four weeks, shall I?

First, there was this significant family development:

DSC00729.JPGYes, that is Ian Cashwell striding into the future, or at least into the room where the dean of VCU's history department is handing him a B.A. with a minor in anthopology. With this in hand, he is now searching for gainful employment (though he is hanging on to his gig as a host at Chili's for the moment). Kelly and I are enormously proud of him, as well as amazed (that we're old enough to be the parents of a college graduate), relieved (that we're now down to paying only one college tuition), and exhausted (from planning the Richmond meeting of various relatives and friends to celebrate the big day in a town with basically no hotel rooms or restaurant reservations left.)

From that point, May got crazier, with a short bout of illness on my part and a consequent rush to get a bunch of papers graded in a very limited time. With all that to do, I didn't get much done on the birding front or the writing front. On the latter, I was at least treated to the daylight antics of the pair of Barred Owls that came to hang out near our school's gatehouse, but most of the spring migrants passed by without my notice. On the former, I heard from Paul Dry Books about the amount of cutting they'd like me to shoot for: between 20 and 25 percent of the current manuscript. I can definitely see a number of places where I can make cuts and tighten the focus, but there's no question that this is going to require some hard choices... when I eventually get around to making them.

The reason I haven't buckled down to edit yet include the aforementioned schoolwork and sick days, but there was also one more family celebration to get through. Back in March, I had learned about a live tour by the cast of Cinematic Titanic, the web-and-DVD movie riffing ensemble formed by the original cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Kel and I have been fans since our pals Tony Plutonium and Jenny Slash introduced us to MST3K's take on Tormented back in '92, and after the show's cancellation, we got in on the ground floor of CT by buying their discs of such appalling films as The Wasp Woman, Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (with not ONE joke repeated from the MST3K version!). Still, in all our years of fandom, we'd never had the chance to catch one of CT's live performances... and as I saw the announcement about this year's tour, I learned a crucial fact: that this tour would be their last.

Well, that clinched it: we were going. The nearest venue was the Arlington Drafthouse, which would host the show on May 31st and June 1st. Since both the Things were brought up MSTies, I reasoned that they would be eager to join us for what might be the group's live swan song, so I booked four tickets for Saturday night. (Note: If you live in Milwaukee, Missouri, Boston, or Philly, you've still got a shot to see them in person before the end of 2013, but get your tickets NOW.) I didn't really think about the fact that this would mean a trip to NoVa on the weekend when I'd be finishing up the grading of my exams and the writing of my final student comments, but dammit, this was too important.

We arrived for the 7:30 show at about 6:00, with a line of around twenty people already in front of us, but after some complex maneuvering around the lobby, the ticket booth, and the Green Room Grill, which is located just off the lobby, we were eventually seated comfortably back from the screen (and relatively close to the merchandise table, which turned out to be significant later on.) and ready to enjoy the opening act by Freaks & Geeks veteran Dave "Gruber" Allen, who set up his own one-man riffing demonstration for the final scene of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." (Titans Mary Jo Pehl and Trace Beaulieu were brought in to assay the roles of Nora and Torvald.)

But then the lights went down and the film began. The target of this particular massacre was the 1973 proto-Charlie's Angels flick The Doll Squad, produced and directed by Ted V. Mikels, whom MST3K creator/star Joel Hodgson described as "Russ Meyer without the substance." After a US rocket is blown up, a glorified teletype machine calculates that the shapely Francine York and her stable of bosomy swimmers, black belts, and demolitions experts are the best agents to investigate the sabotage, and badly-lit and -staged mayhem ensues. The Titans (Hodgson, Beaulieu, Pehl, Frank Conniff, and J. Elvis Weinstein) were in fine form, throwing out snark about everything from the plot ("Oh, yeah, run down a dark alley--nothing bad EVER happens THERE!") to the costumes ("Why is she dressed as an elf?") to the lighting ("Jeez, it was actually lighter underground."), plus miscellaneous gems like these:

Joel (as the captain opens the door in his gunwale): "He broke the boat."

Frank (as one of the Dolls blasts a fallen gunman repeatedly): "Jeez, she's like Bush AND Cheney."

Mary Jo (reading the credit for "the All-Star 'Doll Squad' members"): "I think All-Star should be in quotation marks, too."

Trace (as an exotic dancer spins across the stage madly): "My wiener is getting dizzy!"

J. Elvis (as the villain throws down his wine glass in fury): "Mazel tov, bitch!"

Joel (as the captain closes the door in his gunwale): "There. That'll keep the fish out."

After the show, all five Titans sat down at the merch table to sign stuff and greet the fans, and they were as nice and friendly as you could want. Naturally, as total geeks, the four of us had brought all our CT DVDs, and we bought a poster for the Arlington show for everyone to sign as well.

I think the evening can be best summed up by this moment after the show: Dixon had brought along his beloved homemade VHS copy of Joel's last appearance on MST3K, in the execrable Joe Don Baker vehicle Mitchell, and he shyly asked if he could get it signed. As the Titans did so, Ian remarked, "It's kind of sad that this is my childhood."

J. Elvis replied, "Could be worse. Imagine if it were your career."

And of course, Kelly finally had the chance to pose with one of her longtime TV crushes, Trace Beaulieu, who on MST3K played both the acerbic Crow T. Robot and the mustachioed mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. Though he was no longer sporting the mustache she loved so well, she was still delighted to have this brush with greatness:

DSC00742.JPGAnd then we were off homeward, loaded down with Sharpie-covered videos and one last night as a foursome before we split up for the summer. Dixon's taking summer school classes and looking for occasional paying work in Richmond, Kelly's on her own job hunt here, and I'm getting set for about ten days of travel in the Rockies with my parents, who have been driving all over Utah, Nevada, and California and will meet me in Salt Lake City in a couple of days. I'll have the chance to decompress and do a little birding--okay, a LOT of birding--as well as meeting up with Friend of the Blog David Abrams to get my copy of Fobbit signed.

And yes, I'll post about it. Soon. Here. Honest.


5:29 PM
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