Friday, September 4, 2015

On the Road to Yellowstone

Across the valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Road trips are not my favorite way to travel, so why do I go on them? Generally I use this mode because I can’t see something I’m interested in any other way. One really good reason is to gain an appreciation of the natural world that surrounds us. Someone, and I can’t remember who, said that if you’ve never seen something you can’t appreciate it, and if you can’t appreciate it you won’t be moved to take care of it, and finally if you don’t take care of it, it may be gone forever. This is particularly true of the natural world. I spent a lot of years teaching about the ecology and geology of our country and I never saw a student who wasn’t moved to become a better steward of the land and perhaps inspire his/her students and family to become stewards, as well.

In 1981 I visited Yellowstone National Park for the first time. On the way there, we stopped at several other National Parks or Monuments. These are the gems of the US and should continue to be treated as such.

“The National Park Service invites you to find your park! In celebration of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016, we are launching a movement to spread the word about the amazing places we manage, the inspirational stories that the national parks tell, our country's natural resources, and our diverse cultural heritage.” 
~ National Park Service 

So how is going on an extended road trip different than hopping on a plane and ending up
Crossing the Red River
somewhere you want to be? One of the big differences is in how much you pack; the fact that you are in your own vehicle makes it easier to take more than you need. Although I’m not going to do any camping, I will do laundry so that I don’t have to take a huge amount of clothing with me. However, the one thing that I tend to take fewer of on flying trips because they take up so much space is shoes; when I’m in a car I’m likely to add shoes that are specific to the type of activity I’m going to be doing such as hiking or wading in water. I’ll also need something to do in the car, but spending huge chunks of time online or watching a movie while you’re traveling, defeats the purpose of a road trip. I do like to look out the windows, but there are parts of the world that don’t hold my attention. And no matter who has your cell phone/data plan there are simply places that you will not have service. Sometimes I sketch/draw, other times I make notes for my writing, but mostly I listen to music and chat with whomever is in the car. Frequent stops to stretch my legs and to take a few pictures relieve some of the tediousness of the less than scenic portions of the trip. Occationally, if the road isn’t too rough, I read guide books about the area to which we’re going so that I get some idea of what there is to see. The extra books I take on the trip may include: field guides to wildflowers, Roadside Geology of…, history of an area. These keep me entertained and interested when I’m not driving; they also give me an excuse to stop and look at specific sites along the way. While I don’t stop at all of them, some states have ‘points of interest’ that are 
Prickly Poppy
interesting; those make good places for a bit of time out of the car. Taking paper road maps rather than just relying on a GPS or my phone/tablet allow me to tell much more about where something is because I’m looking at an area map rather than seeing a small portion of the area on the screen. Anytime I stop I pick up whatever free information (map, newspaper, coming events) is available so I know if there is something special to do or if something I wanted to do isn’t available for some reason. This year, since one of the Near-Normal Travelers had never been ‘up north’ we chose to take a road trip that re-created my first visit to Yellowstone. Since we are all a good deal older than we were in the 1980s, we determined that camping was out and hotels were the places we would stay. We also decided that 12 hour driving days were also a thing of the past that wouldn’t be worth re-visiting.

Stream through a valley
For folks traveling without children, the best times to visit National Parks or Monuments are before school is out for the year or just after it begins. This does not mean the parks will not be crowded, they just won’t be as crowded. In planning this trip I found that making reservations to stay in the parks isn’t as easy as it once was. I began looking for places to stay in February, quickly discovering that the only five days I could string together in Yellowstone was late July. From there I booked all the rest of our hotels; choices in certain towns were limited, as well.

Another limitation I found was in the restriction we placed on our daily drive time. I try not to spend more than an eight-hour day (including a lunch break) traveling. At the end of the day I
Rabbit Ears in the distance
want to have time for a good meal, perhaps a bit of sightseeing, a hot shower, and 30 minutes to an hour reflecting on what I saw and did that day. I also don’t want to be so tired that the next morning I’m not looking forward to the adventures that are waiting around that next curve in the road. This was an issue particularly in West Texas and in eastern Wyoming. While we could find hotels in small towns, finding food was problematic. In some towns you could only get food at a convenience store; in other places there were fast food restaurants; in some small towns there were ‘real’ restaurants. And although some towns had restaurants, many of these eateries were not open after 7:00PM or on Sundays. I do take water in the car, but very few snacks and very few soft drinks. We stop for lunch and dinner, but rarely for a snack. The last thing I need is to sit and eat all day; calories in soft drinks and snacks aren’t burned off in a 10 minute driving break.

We left early in the morning from the DFW area and headed west on US 287 toward
Jurassic red beds
Amarillo. The oak and mesquite trees gave way to the West Texas plains as we ascended the cap rock. Once on top, what trees we did see were in lines marking old fence rows. However, this is one of the only times the roadsides and pastures were green with water still in ponds and creeks. While the towns along US 287 are larger than they were in 1982, the spaces in between don’t look much different. Of course we took the shortcut from near Amarillo along Ranch Road 1061 to US 385/87 on our way to Clayton. Usually this is where we begin to see cholla, but because of all the spring rains the grasses are so high that these cacti are hidden. The grasses are also covering the red Jurassic sands of the high plains and the grey-green sages that usually dominate this land. By the end of the first day we were all tired and cranky. It seems that it’s harder to sit than to do anything else. The drive from the DFW area to Clayton, New Mexico, while not hard goes on forever! We ran into rain and wind just outside of Texline and nearly were blown off the road. For about 10 minutes we could hardly see 50 feet, then it was fairly clear and sunny: the most excitement we had on this day.
Clayton is a tiny town just across the Texas-New Mexico border.  Established in 1887, it was the route traders and homesteaders followed along the Santa Fe Trail that passed through
Raton-Capulin volcanic flows
Clayton. The town has been a livestock shipping center for cattle from the Pecos River and the Texas Panhandle for decades. It’s also the gateway to the first national park, actually a national monument, we visited. The 59 miles between Clayton and Capulin National Monument let you enter into a unique volcanic region on the US mainland. This New Mexican area is one of the only places in the US where you can see the remnants of all three kinds of volcanoes: shield, composite and cinder cones. Capulin Volcano is an extinct, symmetrical cinder cone that’s between 58,000 and 62,000 years old. This National Monument was designated as such on August 9, 1916. Our first stop was the visitor and as we expected, this area was lovely. The ranger working the desk had lots of information for visitors, and particularly for children. There were two levels of activities she presented; one activity was for later elementary through middle school level kids, while the other one was
Lave squeeze-up
for younger children. She made it sound like such fun that I wished we’d had some youngsters with us. Near the visitor center is the nature walk; the stops had informational cards that told about the plants and the rocks, including the small lava squeeze-up. It’s well worth taking the time to go around. Also the small museum is worth a quick look. From here we headed up the road to the crater rim. From the top of Capulin you can see the four lava flows. These are easily recognized because of the vegetation that grows on them. One type of lava supports mostly grasses; the other can support tree growth. If you’re up for a bit of a hike, there is a mile stroll around the top or a one mile round trip hike into the crater and back. With all the rain, it’s not only green, but the critters are more likely to be seen. We did see deer, but neither the foxes nor the rattlesnakes.

For information on What we did, Where we stayed and What we ate, go to ‘Reviews of Road Trip to Yellowstone’.
Capulin Volcano

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