For those who seek the lonely places of the earth

Beautiful Views and Bad Attitudes

Montana, July 30-31, 2018

We drove 1600 miles cross-country to Helena, Montana, ostensibly for a convention, but once we realized what wonders were in the area, we went rogue and skipped out entirely, setting out to explore the mountains instead.

C7AED627-7562-48E0-A049-BDF8A17BFD4C

 

A bit of housekeeping before we get started on the post: due to some scheduling changes, new content will now be available on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. Also, if I have not clarified the posting schedule in regards to free content versus the subscription content on Patreon, these will alternate weekly. For example- this is the second of three posts regarding our Montana trip. The first, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, appeared on Patreon last week, and next week the third installment will be posted there. The following week, we return here with a different adventure. If you have not yet looked into the Patreon page, it’s only $2 a month to gain access to the exclusives; that said, though, the rest will remain right here. And now, to the road.

We’d spent the last few days sightseeing through the Great Plains on our way out, and once we reached western Montana we were enthused to see the multitude of peaks towering around us, though we were painfully sick of driving.

A friend of mine who lived in Montana for several years commented once about how going anywhere required at least an hour or two of driving. There were things to do in town, I suppose, at least where we were- his location was more rural, but our home base for the week was right in the state capitol of Helena. Hanging out in town isn’t our idea of fun, though; if that were all there was to do, we wouldn’t have skipped the convention. Regardless, his words ring true. After three days of driving, tantrums from both of the kids (and perhaps the adults), and vehement insistence that we want nowhere near the Jeep ever again, we found ourselves back on the road, two hours out from town, exploring the aptly nicknamed Big Sky Country.

3E70AA9C-A489-4957-A8E9-93A1CD0DA7C7

We had a lucky encounter from a perspective point of view at one of our hotels on the way out- namely, in Rapid City, we headed downstairs in the morning to take advantage of the included breakfast before hitting the road. We walked into a much more crowded dining room than I had expected, and the reason soon became clear. Carl privately nicknamed them the Silver Fox Tour Group- we were sharing breakfast with a busload of elderly people trying to check items off their bucket lists in the twilight of their lives. Away from the bustling hotel dining room, I tried to explain to the kids the reason I consider this to have been significant: maybe it could help them understand why we would make this frantic trip West, clocking a total of over five thousand miles in the course of a week, instead of letting time ambush us before we could get it accomplished.

Of course, after breakfast, we headed to the Jeep.

We had rested Sunday night and when we set out on Monday morning, we planned to spend the day at Mt. Helena City Park. It seemed to fulfill our requirements well enough: good hiking close to town was what we hoped for, but that plan quickly got scrapped due to a road closure and frustration with GPS issues and Helena’s awkwardly situated roads. After a few irritating laps around town, we headed out on Highway 15 North instead and soon came across a sign for The Gates of the Mountains- it was too intriguing to not turn off. When we arrived, it was a sparkling lake in a valley, stretching out into the mountains, complete with boat tours; the boat had just left when we pulled into the lot, though, so instead we hiked up a nearby ridge to look out over the area. The view was stunning, worth every uphill step, although for the kids it was also an uphill battle.

 

A9AB0E3A-90EB-48D0-9BF6-D0B37F564FCC

After we finished up at the lake, we continued north to see what else we could find. We explored by road for a while, and eventually saw signs for Great Falls, where the the Falls of the Missouri are found. The river seemed to have followed us ever since we first crossed it in South Dakota- we decided to follow it right back.

7A43B428-BFE7-47D6-B718-1DC679B2DFC6.jpeg

The Ryan Dam is a hydroelectric dam perched atop the falls- rather than detracting from the site, though, its consistent (and constant) flow tames the wild river, as it pours out its burden. Near the parking area is a suspension bridge that leads to a small island, where maybe Lewis and Clark themselves stopped for lunch alongside the gorgeous falls.

EA87DF59-8463-4C35-9DC2-4DE5358FE06B.jpeg

 

On the following day, we headed north again, this time aiming nearly for the Canadian border. The mountains around Glacier National Park dwarfed us and made us feel perfectly insignificant. The park was already packed when we got there around noon, after making the four hour drive up. It surprised me that there were so many people there on a Tuesday, although summer was still in full swing. Whatever the case, we entered by the St. Mary gate, whose visitor center was full to overflowing; Logan Pass was the same way. Unable to find parking, we followed Going to the Sun Road for its 50 mile length through the park, and exited via West Glacier. We lunched at West Glacier Restaurant which we found right outside the park gates, then re-entered and headed toward Apgar, now our nearest possibility for parking, to see what kind of hiking we could find there. We found a trailhead down a gravel road, said to lead to an old ranger station about four miles out, and we hit the trail.

It was about ninety degrees at that point, and the skeletal pines offered little shade, still decimated from wildfires as long ago as 2006. The kids, initially excited about escaping the Jeep and going on a hike, started dragging their feet pretty quickly, complaining that they were bored and hot. By this point, Carl and I were feeling pretty jaded as well, and having to defend every location we chose to stop from relentless criticism didn’t help our own perceptions much. Nonetheless, we dragged the kids along for about two hours before saying “to hell with it” and turning back. By this point, they were nearing mutiny and it took promises of Slushies after the hike to keep them moving- of course, with that motivation, the return trip only took us about an hour. With a dead battery on my Garmin watch that day, I had only a faint idea of how far we had gone before turning around; the pessimist in me likes to think that we were just right around the corner from the old ranger station, but that will remain a mystery. With some of the tension relieved, the trail seemed prettier on the way back: Indian Paintbrush nodded all around us, punctuated by ancient exposed rock, the same kind that loomed all around us, obscuring the horizon. Afterwards, I found very little information online on this trail, and although it remains in decent shape, it seems to no longer be maintained.

E232BC56-6C98-49FE-8199-9C84847D548C

We delivered on the promised Slushies, established a tentative truce with the children, and headed back toward Helena for the night. We planned to go to Yellowstone the next day and had no desire to get caught in the same traffic, so we would be retiring early and waking up at 4am to be there at open. Attitudes ended up cutting that one short as well, as Alison discovered a sudden crippling phobia of horseflies- but the day after, we would end up back at Glacier, and finally get a chance to take that perfect hike.

Like As We Wander? Click below to like and share the blog on Facebook or via email, or become a patron on Patreon for access to exclusive content. Questions/comments can be posted directly to the blog, or email at aswewander@yahoo.com!

Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers

After more than 5,000 miles road-tripping across the United States in the last week, we’ve finally made it back home, exhausted but exuberant, with enough material to keep me busy writing for the next few weeks. Check out the Patreon page on Wednesday for Part One, Martian Turbines and Monumental Middle Fingers, come back here to the site next Monday for Part 2, regarding beautiful hikes and bad attitudes, and the third installment will follow the next week featuring glaciers and jackalopes.

See you in the wild.

The Land of the Spiders

Hoosier National Forest, Indiana, September 2017

After a traumatic situation this past September where I found myself at the wrong end of a gun, I took the rest of the week off work in order to gather my thoughts and to escape the city. I’d already hit some of my local favorite trails in the week, so I headed somewhere new. This turned out to be the Sycamore Loop, approximately 8 miles of trail in the Charles Deam Wilderness, an unattached subsection of the Hoosier National Forest- a relatively untrafficked loop, in an obscure part of the forest. It was a perfect place to get away so I threw on some shorts and a t-shirt, filled my water bottle, and headed south.

This portion of the forest, covering almost 13,000 acres, has settler history that dates back to the early 1800s, although Native American history on the land stretches back much further. The settlers cleared the land for farming. About a century later, the Forest Service purchased the land and began work to rehabilitate it, and after about another hundred years, the area is now back to wilderness. The Hoosier National Forest in its entirety covers roughly 290 square miles, but the Wilderness itself is a jurisdictional anomaly: it is in no place actually contiguous the forest, but instead has entire towns in between, including relatively large Bedford. I had trouble finding out where to go for my trailhead, and asked in a gas station there in Bedford off SR-37, and between the attendant and the local who got involved in the conversation, neither had heard of the Charles Deam Wilderness. It turned out to be only a few miles down the road, though, and eventually I arrived. I’d seen some comments online complaining about the amount of spiders along the loop, but paid it no mind; surely these were written by people who were simply not used to the outdoors.

Charles Deam Wilderness

Spoiler alert- there are tons of spiders.

Conveniently, spiders don’t bother me much (although if they bother you, you should probably skip past today’s post). Of all the spiders in Indiana, only two types are dangerous to humans, specifically the brown recluse and black widow, so we can just memorize those two; the rest are harmless enough. The arrowhead orb weaver spiders that call the hardwood forest home are carnivorous, sure, but as they sit boldly on the ephemeral webs they string between branches and trees and across the narrow trail, they are waiting for prey much smaller than a human. Those webs are fantastic constructions, all the more so for being so temporary; they are generally restrung daily. Nevertheless, I tried to avoid the webs, or duck around them, although they were often invisible until I blundered into them. But it was a beautiful day, fall just beginning to make hesitant advances, and I had the forest to explore. Wearing a spiderweb or two was a minor inconvenience.

Arrowhead Orb Weavers

I stopped to watch one spider eating a fly that had the ill-fortune of accepting the invitation to its parlor, and just beyond, I stooped to gawk at a bright purple shelf fungus on a log alongside the trail. A couple of toads hunkered down to camouflage themselves from me as if they were on an epic quest, like Hobbits, and I were the watcheye on the path that irresistibly led on. Deer snorted by. It was one of those eternal moments, perfectly transcendental; and in my bliss, I’d ignored the drone of the horsefly until it had nicked the back of my knee. I waved it away, undoubtedly cursed a bit, and hiked on until the next pretty sight caught my eye. When I paused, the horsefly bit again. I swatted and swore, and blundered into more spiderwebs, and Sam Toad asked Frodo Toad why I was dancing so. Finally, amidst my flailing, I managed to strike my target.

As I gloated over my victory, the next fly descended. And so we continued, like Io of Greek myth and the tormenting gadfly that followed her the world across after incurring Hera’s wrath, frustrated and bleeding and forced ever onward. The spiders were a problem now after all, as I no longer had the leisure to duck around them; confused orb weavers clung to me, their lairs decimated, as I hustled down the trail. Sticky silk coated my skin and a hitchhiker clung to my eyelashes.

Fungi

I then passed the first fellow hiker I’d seen all day, strolling down the path serenely in the opposite direction, doubtless slathered in DEET and casually swinging a stick ahead of her to catch the webs.

It’s hard to describe the feeling I had then, although I remember it well, nearly a year later: it’s a sort of existential absurdity, as world pinpoints in to the problem at hand, each grievance seeming just as dire as the last, until that moment of clarity when one realizes that so very little of it actually matters. But its not a feeling of despair- in fact, I may have even laughed to myself, probably to the concern of the other hiker to the state of my mental health.

I didn’t begrudge her the better planning ahead, but neither did I ask if she had any OFF to spare. I hiked on down the trail, accompanied by my tormentor the fly, no longer even breaking stride to pull the spiders off of me, tossing them to my right and left like a deranged Johnny Appleseed. As gloomy days bring out the most dramatic pictures, the frustration of the hike gave it its color. Annoyed though I may have been, while distracted with my horsefly I gave no mind to the sense of post-robbery violation that had made me flee to the wilderness to start with. Discontent drove me out there- but the forest didn’t fail me.

Like As We Wander? Click the links below to like and share the blog on Facebook or Instagram, or become a patron on Patreon for access to exclusive content. Questions/comments can be posted directly to the blog, or email at aswewander@yahoo.com!

Sinks and Stones

This week’s post is something a little different. It’s a write-up of Kentucky’s Sinks of the Roundstone cave, and it is available exclusively on As We Wander’s new Patreon page! I’d love for you to check it out. If you’d prefer to wait for free content, stay tuned and next Monday we will return with The Land of the Spiders, a hardwood forest that only looks empty.

Aladdin’s Cave

A journey through Aladdin’s Cave

Fellow wanderers- it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, so let me start by apologizing for my absence. In doing so, I can’t help but mention some of the projects that have claimed of my time, as 2018 has felt like a juggling act. While the corporate day job remains perpetually understaffed, I managed to carve out the time to re-enroll in college this spring in order to complete what has been sitting on hold for the last half-decade. As long as schedules continue to fit together, I will have not one, but two bachelor’s degrees by next spring. There’s commitment involved beyond just waiting out that time frame, though, so as I write this, I *might* be procrastinating on studying for an exam. The family seems to like attention, too, and those additional characters of Carl and Arwyn that I presented a couple of years ago didn’t run off to Siberia after all- in fact, Alison and I started the year by moving in together with them, so my previous roles of mom/ boss have expanded to mom/ stepmom/ girlfriend/ superhero/ budget keeper/ still the boss.

In the midst of it all, though, we’ve still found time for adventure. Last weekend, Carl rappelled into a pit here in good ol’ Indiana (a trip that I was sorry to miss!) and at the end of the month we head to Montana for the National Speleological Society’s annual convention. Despite my restrictive schedule, I’ve been able to sneak in some hikes and the occasional caving trip, not to mention working on SCUBA training, too- more on that in a future post. You could say that I’ve spent this last year doing field research on the adventurous family, and there are stories that want told from over the course of it, and before. Today we look at an environment, nestled in the American South, that seems straight out of a fairy tale.

 

Aladdin’s Cave*

Georgia, November 2017

It was just days after Thanksgiving and here we were in Georgia, amid herds of cattle that eyed us suspiciously as they stepped between their calves and our vehicles. Miles of unprepossessing farmland surrounded us in the land of cotton and cattle, where brilliantly white scraps litter the roadsides after harvest time. But that was not what we were here to see. In a farm field guarded by bovines we found the fenced-in area we sought, and within, a culvert that looked no more extraordinary than the rest of the land surrounding it.

Georgia
Georgia Cotton Fields

We had left late the day before and driven twelve hours for this adventure, arriving in Georgia shortly before dawn on the same day that we were supposed to meet up with the local grotto member who would lead us on the trip. Carl was beaming when he first told me about the invitation.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. This cave, *whose name I have withheld at the request of the conservancy who manages it, is exquisitely beautiful, but equally fragile; very few people are allowed to explore its passages in any given year, and most who do enter are engaged in restoration efforts, due to previous vandalism and the damage that even well-intentioned but poorly informed people could cause.

We slept for a couple of hours in the Jeep in a Wal-Mart parking lot, met up with some friends from Kentucky who had also made the drive down, and our trip leader, who apparently was not quite local either- she hailed from Tallahassee, Florida. After the typical greetings and gear checks and gas station coffee, we made the forty-five minute drive to the cave.

A blast of air made the dead leaves dance and threw grit in everyone’s eyes as we opened the culvert. A ladder stretched down within, and one by one, we began to descend into the darkness.

The ladder led into a corkscrew canyon, wallpapered with densely packed helictites. They were sand-daubed and gritty, and brought two distinct images to mind: the extravagance of an aged coral reef, or piles of wriggling earthworms, fruitlessly attempting to burrow into the rock. Helictites are the troublesome siblings of soda straws, ignoring such burdens as gravity; instead, the path of least resistance is their way, and fantastic growths ensue. In the heavy airflow of this entrance, the detritus nearly obscured the gorgeous calcite.

Helictites

The canyon led into a passage named the Hall of High Hopes. There’s a clear double meaning to the name. It winds and it’s cramped and ironic, but for many the high hopes in this cave are sincere: this is Aladdin’s Cave, or so it seems, and just around the corner are the glittering diamonds and jewels. Coming out of the muddy passage that bears the illustrious name, we headed into the Sand Room. This name seems ironic as well- much more salient than any sand were the gorgeous formations of clean calcite, almost transparent in places. Though the air was warm, around seventy degrees, the entire room looked full of ice sculptures.

Angel Wings

Further on, we reached the Crystal Pools, another one of the cave’s otherworldly features. Here, the floor was a mass of calcite crystals, thousands of them, growing in the pool that stretched wall-to-wall. It would be easy to get carried away in description, just as I got carried away with photography, shooting nearly 700 frames that day; it seems only reasonable to let some of the pictures of this glorious place speak for themselves.

Calcite Creations

We exited after dusk, the setting sun no more than a red smear on the horizon. The culvert was easier to exit than to enter, as this way we were able to avoid looking into the blowing grit that had complicated the journey down; it was difficult to say goodbye, though, to the rare beauty that lay under Georgia fields. We upgraded the previous night’s accommodations to actual beds in a hotel, then spent the next day en route back to Indianapolis, ready to plan the next adventure.

Like As We Wander? Click the links below to like and share the blog on Facebook or Instagram, and Patreon will be coming soon with access to exclusive content. Questions/comments can be posted directly to the blog, or email at aswewander@yahoo.com!

%d bloggers like this: