June 26 – July 1 Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa… through the heart of the Midwest

We drove through the backroads from Sundance, WY to get a feel of the land and landed in Deadwood staying at the Deadwood Mountain Grand where we meandered through a Vegas-style lobby to get to the hotel itself.  We weren’t prepared for the casino culture that eclipsed the history we were seeking in town.  We loved the series and the movie and while the historical buildings and signs were apparent, they seemed more like an attraction for the casino crowd – we’re not casino people so it doesn’t appeal to us.  In Skagway, AK, you had interpretive centers and the money invested into education and museums that were part of the main drag: You got a real feel of the Klondike Goldrush.  

We decided to have dinner at the historical Franklin Hotel which had that grand old hotel feel to it and even the bar had the velvet covered chairs – yet you are again, surrounded by loud slot machines, so instead of immersing in the old west we finished our drinks and went outside because the noise was getting obnoxious.  We were then met with motorcyclists with loud engines who decided to blare their radios to compete with the sound of the engines. It was deafening.  

As we wandered around town, to the historical sites where Wild Bill Hickock was shot and Seth Bullock had established his hardware store, we also noticed deep pockmarks in some of the cars; a testimony to the violent storms that pass through this region.  Ouch!

Deadwood, South Dakota

We visited the Mount Moriah Cemetery the next morning which was a great experience; based on the date on the headstones, the mortality rate was just so low and many of them dated back to the mid-1800’s.  Of course Will Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane were the highlights – Seth Bullock’s grave site is a 1.5 mile hike up a gravel road; I suppose to secure his legacy in Deadwood’s history.  It was getting hot and we needed to hit the road so declined that particular adventure.  

Legends of Deadwood

Passing through more vast grasslands, we decided to stop by the Badlands National Park. It was in the 90’s and we came up from the south end of the park that turned out to be over thirty miles of gravel road (oops!).  It would have been easier to come off the I-90 but you still would need to do the mileage to get around the high points of the park; we went from south to north.   This desolate, fascinating landscape sprawls on for quite a ways with several overlooks. 

Badlands National Park

We saw a herd of bison on the open range and it gave me a sense of how it was on these prairies prior to the post-Civil War migration.  There were “villages” of charming prairie dogs scurrying across the roads and poking their heads out of the mounds.  

Bison roaming the Badlands

Amongst the many fascinating features are the Yellow Mounds – an anomaly we hadn’t encountered through our travels in the Southwest.  

Yellow Mounds, Badlands National Park

I loved the landscape of the badlands; they reminded me of the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico with the same clay-like soil, but of course on a grander scale and not as bizarre. 

I became fascinated by the White River Overlook, maybe because it took me to another planet, even though most of the Badlands is like that.  

White River Overlook, Badlands National Park

Outside the Badlands Visitor Center

It turned out to be a lovely evening as we passed through the Buffalo Gap National Forest (forest is a relative term as it’s mostly grass). Sadly there were a fair amount of casualties on the I-90; deer, porcupine, raccoons, rabbits.  We spent the night at the Landmark Country Inn that was run by a lovely Mexican family.  Another Mexican family was staying there; it was great to see a diversity of people and ownership in this area.  

The following day we found ourselves traveling through the the Fort Pierre National Grasslands that was part of the Great Plains, though so much is now cow pasture and corn.  Vast, endless, preturbed by agriculture though much remains virgin, it’s too vast for us to consume. 

We stopped at the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center in Chamberlain. It was so well put together and equally heartbreaking when you consider there is more land than we can possibly use,  yet we white people came and settled, pushing the Lakota, Sioux and accompanying tribes into finite reservations.  They had some of the artifacts from “Dances with Wolves” on display which was filmed in the area and goods for purchase made by local Indians – thankfully nothing from China was for sale.

Akta Lakota Museum

We ended the day at Sioux Falls KOA in the shade (thankfully) on a 90 degree day.  It was next to the interstate and a bit noisy, but otherwise well-kept. When I checked in I was directed to the shelter in case of a weather event.  We had seen the carnage with some granaries and barns that looked like they had been ripped open by a gargantuan can opener.  They apparently have had some very severe storms prior to us arriving.  I’ll take the hot weather over a nasty storm any day!  

What also drew my attention was that my father grew up on a farm north of Bismarck, ND, amongst the same grasslands of the Great Plains, and I got a sense of how it must have been before he joined the Navy and was deployed to the Pacific; quiet, vast, out of reach, still – until hammered by storms and plundered by dust.  It was even harsher for my grandparents who settled there, Russian Germans escaping persecution from the Czar, adjusting to this new, harsh environment.

We set out for Winterset the following day to see the covered bridges made famous by the “Bridges of Madison County.”  It was a very hot and windy day, and a long drive. We arrived at Covered Bridges Winery which is a Harvest Host site. We did some wine tasting; the local grapes are designed to withstand the harsh winters. I bought a nice bottle of Rose.  The wines are named after the bridges or characters from the movie, though it didn’t come across as over-commercialized.  Since it was so hot, and we didn’t want to be dry camping in the blazing sun, so we decided to see Winterset and the bridges.  I love those hot days when it starts to cool in the evening and the nostalgic smell of summer beckons. We walked along the quiet streets of Winterset, pride spilling onto the sidewalks, passing a smattering of quilt shops and peeking into the Northside Cafe; inside there was a jumble of movie props, apparently left for an undefined destiny. 

Winterset, Iowa

The city is shadowed by the Madison County Courthouse, that sits in stately residence, dominating the middle of town.   Winterset is also the birthplace of John Wayne and his history is proudly displayed in local museum. 

John Wayne Museum – saddle up partner!

The golden evening ended with a trip to the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway, including the famous Holliwell where the flies were tragically voracious if you ventured too far into the grass.

Holliwell Bridge, Madison County, Iowa

Otherwise these stops are a great way to picnic in the quiet amongst the cooling trees with the babbling undertows of passing rivers.  

A Beautiful Evening at Cedar Bridge

The sun set over the rolling hillsides and we parked up in the shade outside the winery with no one else around, the wind was now an inviting presence that flowed through our tiny rooms, humbling us to sleep.  

The following day we stayed at a shady and calm campsite on the edge of Monticello that wasn’t too far from the Field of Dreams site outside of Dyersville.  

It was seriously hot and humid and the wind seemed to provide litte relief. Fortunately the evening cooled off nicely allowing for a good night’s sleep. The next day was more palatable and the clouds were a respite from the blazing sun. This made for, in our estimation, a perfect day to visit the Field of Dreams.  

When we arrived it was just starting to get busy, but not overly so. 

Bob was glassy-eyed as we walked around the pitch, taking in the essence of the great American pastime.  It doesn’t take long to meander through the site that includes the field, house, gift shop, grounds and of course fields of corn.

What was even more lovely were fathers and coaches bringing their kids (yes girls included!), to the legendary pitch to practice. 

If you build it…

It makes you teary-eyed when you think with all the negativity in the world you can come to a special place like this – this enduring dream-like wonder that encompasses the heart of America, that on the surface seems so simple, but as you dig deeper you slip into a more profound sense that the fantasy here isn’t a mere fabrication – it truly delivers on its promise:

“They’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.  People will come Ray.  The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.  America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it’s part of our past, Ray.  It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.”

James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann – Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams is about so much more than baseball – people who claim it’s the worst baseball film ever missed the entire essence of the movie, which is tragically their loss:  We dream, those dreams are crushed, we love, we lose, we get tangled in the past and cannot move forward.  Field of Dreams is a place that transcends all of that, it’s about resolution and the universal need for human connection.  The power of the storytelling hits you on a subconscious level and leaves you in a state of wonder: With baseball as its foil, you can stand on the pitch of nostalgia and allow yourself to dream across generations. 

It is timeless and just as relevant today as it was 33 years ago. 

Iowa itself touched me in a way that I had not expected, I felt as though I had stumbled upon a forgotten America, a place buried in my early childhood.  It was windy but we were not ravaged by the storms that had torn apart the livelihood of too many farmers.  Our eyes could stretch only so far into the horizon across the fledgling stalks of corn, interrupted by the tireless farms and stainless silos.  It was forever green, sliced and curved like carved fruit, lovingly pressed into the hills and fields.  The grass was the sea that rolled onto a beach of eternal sunshine.  The golden sunset and echoes of crickets welcomed the calm, distilling the absence of the unrelenting buffeting.  Constellations swirl and drop their seedlings; we dream while fireflies dance in the tall grass on a cool summer’s evening.

Is this heaven?  No, it’s Iowa.

June 22 – 26 Montana and Wyoming

We arrived in Montana and the lovely but packed Glacier West KOA.  We had cancelled our Xanterra Redbus Tour for Going to the Sun Road (GTTSR) as we received notification that the road was still not open and unlikely it would be until July, and very possibly not until after the 4th….it would be like going to an Adele concert with no Adele. Since we weren’t going to the GTTSR, I blew off needing a reservation from Recreation.gov…had I read the fine print or committed further critical thinking to the matter I would have found out it doesn’t matter whether the Going to the Sun Road is open – you need to be registered to get into the park:  This is in addition to the Park Entrance Fee (we have the National Park Pass so no issue for us).

When we arrived we were stopped by the GTTSR Road Rangers saying we needed a reservation for the not open GTTSR. We said we just wanted to go to Apgar and kayak Lake McDonald as the road wasn’t open – that didn’t matter – we either needed a tour operator or the Recreation.gov GTTSR reservation.  She directed us to Glacier Outfitters, we had to turn around and drive for about fifteen minutes to find a cell signal. Luckily Glacier Outfitters were very accommodating and got us a digital reservation to go kayaking on Lake McDonald. What also added to my confusion is the other boat tour operator – Glacier Boat Tours – that is listed on the National Parks site, doesn’t take reservations and when I called them they said they would take walk-ins. The NPS for Glacier keeps changing the web site so it’s a good idea just to get the GTTSR reservation if you can.  

When we got back to the entrance I flashed the reservation that they didn’t even read.  And I suppose if we didn’t have our RV we could have driven the GTTSR after our kayaking trip if it had been open.  So word to the wise – get online when the tickets are first available because they will probably be gone in a day or so: You have to nail down a date.  Otherwise book a tour or lodging within the park. And go mid-July through August.  It will be packed but this is the way of things now.  

It has to be difficult for these outfitters as they are now limited on the amount of walk-ins and they had a fair amount of kayaks available when we finally made it through. 

Dead calm on Lake McDonald with a view of the peaks

Sadly, this was the second time we tried to do the GTTSR, last time we didn’t see much due to wildfires.  You can’t have everything – but we got a nice two-hour kayak in and watched a deer roam around the village.  We also stopped off at a local kiosk and bought huckleberries and Rainier cherries – summer has officially arrived and the day was saved! 

A young buck just hanging out at the lake

We bid farewell to Glacier, traveling through the alpine forests of the Flathead National Forest, stopping for tea at a lake north of Seeley.  We could have easily dry camped there – the entire area was pristine with only a few people, and the summer air was so inviting.  Seeley itself was a charming town with a lovely outpost that did decent lattes.  

Soon the Bitterroot Mountains appeared in the distance, framing the open ranges filled with yellow and purple wildflowers.  The rolling hills were vast and verdant with the occasional century-old collapsed barn to add to the quintessential rustic views. 

We passed over the Continental Divide, strewn with massive granite boulders that spiraled onto the vast plains and plateaus, winding our way through the open ranges then settling in Bear Mountain Campground outside of Bozeman. It was too close to the interstate that seemed noisier than others we had overnighted, and the trains were interminable.  Regardless, it was a beautiful evening and we stretched our legs along the backroads that overlooked the farmlands. This region is prone to passing thunderstorms and can get pretty windy as we soon found out as the thunder rumbled overhead. 

Bozeman farmlands

We headed for Greybull, Wyoming the next day.  We crossed the Big Blackfoot River of a “River Runs Through It” fame, where you can imagine yourself lazing along the riverside chewing on a piece of grass – yeah like the song.

As we were skirting east of the Yellowstone National Park (closed due to flooding but we had already, thankfully, done Yellowstone) we crossed the said river a few times; it was swollen and violent, taking down the fragile “tree islands” that were probably stable during a normal season. The endless ranches of the Crow Indian territory disappeared into the snow capped peaks of the Custer and Teton ranges in the distance: I try to imagine what it was like before white man came here, when the buffalos roamed free and the Indians lived on the plains.

We settled for the evening at the quiet Greybull KOA, skirting yet more thunderstorms.  Otherwise, all you could hear was the wind and the cooing of pigeons and I got a good night’s sleep. It is a nicely kept KOA that I would recommend.  

The next morning we explored the Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite outside of Shell, WY.  

The Bighorn Basin is home to some of the most astounding fossil discoveries in the country.  We sure had fun looking for 167 million-year-old tracks and I was able to collect (legally) some broken bits of fossilized ammolite, some with insect indentations on them. 

Jurassic tracks!
The boys were having a blast tracking dino’s!

This area used to be part of the “Sundance Sea,” and the tracks became fossilized from the dinosaur sinking its feet in mud on the shoreline.  I can understand how one can become obsessed with archeology and doing these digs! 

Red Gulch, Wyoming dinosaur country

The Red Gulch itself reminded me of the Painted Desert in Arizona – the whole area was quite a revelation:  We had no idea how stunning the Bighorn Scenic Byway was – it unfolded like a mini Grand Canyon!  As we drove down into the canyon there were signs depicting the year of a particular archeological stratus; the lowest was the “pre-Cambrian” period dating back 2.5 billion years.  As we gained elevation we saw different signs until we got to Triassic and then Jurassic periods.  Then a steep climb revealed a granite gulch and river thundering down its harrowing precipices.   

Bighorn Basin, what an unexpected pleasure!

We eventually found ourselves at 9000 feet passing over Granite Pass.  The alpine meadows had moose, elk and deer meandering about, oblivious to our presence.  I didn’t think there were moose in Wyoming, but like the buffalo in Canada I’m getting quite the education.  

Once back to a suitable elevation, we were now in quintessential cowboy country; watching them saddle up in the fields, a cowboy was herding the cattle into the ranch.  From the rolling red and green plateaus mounds appeared bearing no logic in their unique presence. 

The wind picked up, which seems to be a thing here in Wyoming, settling in Sundance on a clear evening at the Mountainview Campground not far from the Devil’s Tower.  They have great Wi-Fi and we were backed up against the mountains.

We had huckleberry pancakes for breakfast and headed to Devils Tower. When we arrived at the visitor center we were turned away as there was no RV parking spaces left – there was only room for about five rigs: Per the park ranger, no tows are allowed and any cars who stole RV spots were being kicked out. We turned around and drove about a mile down the road and turned off onto a gravel road, that, as it turned out, was the trailhead for the Joyner trail. It had a perfectly clear view of the tower – our “misfortune” turned into one of those situations where we made out like bandits.

The view from Joyner Trail

We hiked down the Joyner trail taking in the killer views with virtually no one else around, passing by the prayer bundles tied to the trees – placed by the local Indian tribe and thank god this area has been protected. We went down the gulch and ran into deer, listening to the echo of blackbirds against the still meadows. The temperature and blue sky allowed for lingering and letting your thoughts wander like a wildflower; the impossible tower looming in the background – one of America’s great geological and cultural treasures.

Looping around the still of alpine meadows

The trail eventually connected with the Redbed Trail and its beautiful red rock, then back to the crowded visitor center. All in all it was around three miles on a balmy Sunday.

Scenery along the Redbed Trail

We left the visitor center and took the road back down to the trailhead.

Alien spotting at the Devils Tower Visitor Center

We watched as RVs came up and then back down as there was no space. Some turned off to the Joyner Trailhead, others simply aborted altogether. If you want to do the Devils Tower in an RV then it’s a bit of crapshoot – if you are in the LTV you’ll be allowed if there is room – otherwise take an incredible hike around the tower = unforgettable. We stopped off to indulge in some well-earned ice cream on the way out and headed on down the road to South Dakota.

BigB and the Devils Tower – how cool is that

June 10 -12 The Alaska Highway Expanse

On our way to Watson Lake the terrain leveled out into rolling hills with vast expanses of boreal forest.  The sunny delights of fair weather we had enjoyed for so many weeks ended as we rolled into passing rainstorms; it did help to clean off the layers of bug caracasses we had diligently collected and the rig looked a bit more cleansed for a change.  

We passed convoys of RVs thankful we were going the other direction it was starting to get pretty busy up north.  

We overnighted at the Downtown RV Park that we had stayed at on our way up to Alaska (this is the place with the “sign post” park).  It’s a parking lot but has good laundry and shower facilities and the Scottish proprietor was a pleasant albeit a bit stressed out fellow; this was prime time for him and he was working long days.  It had rained most of the day and let up enough for us to take a walk around Wye Lake that was right across from the RV park.  It’s nature trail and we spotted two beavers swimming through the lake. We noticed as we moved south, the sun was now setting at 10:30ish and the nights were a tad darker.

It rained overnight and didn’t let up as we pulled out and headed for Liard Hotsprings.  We entered British Columbia once again and bid our final farewell to the Yukon – reflecting on what an amazing experience it has been.  As we drove we saw ponds threatening to creep onto the road; the rivers were raging, showing signs of flooding as trees had become partially submerged.  The rain and late melt from the mountains was creating problems up and down the Alcan – we hoped we wouldn’t get caught in the middle of it and have to wait somewhere for the floods to recede.  We pulled off to a site called “Whirlpool Canyon” where the swollen Liard River clashed with contradicting tides; it was certainly unfriendly and the rain wasn’t putting a damper on the mosquitoes.  A couple who also stopped by said they would come down here every year and had never seen it so turbulent.  

We have been experiencing climate change all around us and have had too many vacations disrupted due to wildfires; we are glad we are doing this trip now – who knows what it will be like with more crowds and challenging weather systems in the near future. 

Beyond the “watch for caribou signs,” we saw new signs for bison with digital warnings that we were entering a crash corridor.  There were certainly a lot of spore on the highway and then we spotted a bison grazing on the side of the road.  I didn’t realize that bison were a thing in British Columbia and it turns out they were nearly wiped out due to the early trading in bison hide. Canada has the Woods and the Plains Bison and have been trying to conserve the species. It is great to see them roaming free and we did eventually see a small herd of them – those and the occasional black bear.

Canadian Bison!

We reached Liard Hotsprings Lodge that appeared to just now realize that it was almost summer and that they might want to clean up the lodge?  The RV park was operational enough with electricity and water, but the laundry and bathrooms were out of order and besides the log lodge itself, it looked like the additional rooms were containers shipped from a research facility in the arctic.

We waited for the showers to pass and as the blue skies opened up we walked over to the Liard Hot Springs located in the Provincial Park across the street.  Passing through the campsite that was surrounded by a Jurassic Park style electric fence (bison, bear, elk and moose all wander around this vicinity ready to wreak havoc on the human population), we went through the gate onto a long boardwalk that passed through a lightly wooded marsh. The hot springs were located in a lovely wooded setting, much like a grotto, surrounded by ferns that reveled in the perpetual steam.  There were bathrooms, changing rooms and cubbies for your stuff.  Fortunately it wasn’t too crowded and the smell of sulphur wasn’t too bad. We welcomed the heat as we lowered ourselves into the shallow, crystal-clear water. In some areas the temperature was scalding hot and I was instructed to stir up the colder water from the bottom.  

Liard Hotsprings

We wallowed in the healing waters for about an hour and decided to head back as another wave of thunderclouds had inched their way in our direction.  We got back to the rig just as the sky unleashed its burden.  Not much later the blue skies opened up once again.  

We headed out early as we had a long drive to Pink Mountain.  It wasn’t long until we saw the peaks of the Northern Canadian Rockies.  The boys enjoyed a bit of moose spotting.

We drove by Muncho Lake and its unreal larimar-blue waters that were disturbingly close to the edge of the road.  I can’t image how long we would have been stuck if the lake had flooded the road.  

We were hit by some heavy thunderstorms, the theatrics complete with thunder, lightning and hail.  When the storms dissipated the vast valleys lit up with mist as if the landscape had slid back into the steaming jungles dinosaur age.  It was a rare and breathtaking site to behold. 

Mist rising from the vast expanse after a thunderstorm

Further up the road we saw the warning signs for Bighorn Sheep and they weren’t kidding.  Other RVs were flashing us from the opposite direction as the sheep were here and there in small herds and weren’t easily spooked.  It was pretty cool to watch them as if we barely existed. 

Bighorn Sheep!

The land eventually leveled out into terraces and we hit an impasse on the road with vehicles blocking the shoulders on both sides.  The semi truck in front of us was struggling to get by.  We were too busy trying to navigate the obstacle course that I didn’t see the large black bear at 1:00 about to saunter right in front of BigB.  I gasped – OMG!  The bear must have had enough sense to stop in time as there was no visible “thud” as we rolled by.  What I found odd is that he had a piece of garbage in his mouth.  Canada has more garbage stations along the road than people have common sense and you barely see any debris, it’s absolutely pristine; it occurred to me that one of those wankers across the road was probably feeding this poor fellow and he was crossing the highway for more…..

We arrived at Pink Mountain and camped amongst the pines – ending a rather dramatic day in peace.  

After passing through the agricultural section of British Columbia, flat and beautiful, we arrived at Dawson Creek – Mile 0 of the Alaska Highway. Now onto Jasper!

June 5 – 8 The Yukon to Skagway along the Klondike Highway

After leaving Tok (the Tok RV Park is great and we were nestled amongst the pines) We made it across the border but not before spotting a juvenile caribou on the side of the road.  He was freaked and froze in front of us before sprinting off to find his mother.

Little dude!

The RV traffic had picked up dramatically and we kept seeing the same caravan of three RV rentals being driven by Germans.  We seem to encounter a fair amount of Dutch and Germans. 

The frost heaves started not long after we left Tok – we were anticipating them this time. The “perma” in perma frost isn’t so permanent as the pavement gives way as the ground softens.  There are times on the Alaska Highway that you would expect the oxygen masks to fall if you were on an airplane.  Being in a higher profile vehicle only exacerbates the rumpy-bumpy ride.  

The wildflowers were in bloom and we even drove through a “pollen storm” – like a dust storm but it was orange-yellow pollen coming off the deciduous trees; the road was layered in it.  

We were curious to see how much had changed since we went through this area two weeks ago.  The Yukon Discovery Lodge was busy though they ran a generator all night as they had no other source of power.  Such is life in this part of the world.  

We left the next morning as the sun was rising over the nearby ridges.  Fog emerged from the valley and we had a clear view of the Kluane Range that had been socked in on our way up.  We witnessed massive icefields running vertically from the sides of peaks – amazing stuff.

We passed marshes and ponds with migratory birds including Trumpeter Swans;  one pond had two swans surrounded by ducks as if they were gathered to admire their magnificence. Unfortunately there wasn’t room to stop and enjoy the scene.  

We swung by Pickhandle Lake as the mist rose and the loons were making their way across the water.  

Pickhandle Lake and the Kluane Range

We then settled at Lakeview Campground for breakfast; the forest was rich with the scent of pine mixed with the heady essence of spring.  

As we made our way back down to Destruction Bay, we rounded corners with endless the endless mountain range welcoming us with open arms.  The bay was still partially frozen, quiet and still save for the distant cry of what sounded like a fox.  

Destruction Bay

After a peaceful overnight at the Caribou RV Park south of Whitehorse we headed to Skagway, AK via Highway #2 – known as the famous Klondike Highway that leads to the Inside Passage.  We essentially drove from the Yukon, through a spit of British Columbia and back into Alaska – all 100 miles from Whitehorse.  

As we headed west the terrain turned into granite outcroppings, more steep cliffs with cascading waterfalls, surrounded by partially frozen ponds.  Granite islands emerged from the waterways, covered in lichen with a smattering of boreal pine creating a very unique ecosystem.   The temperature dropped to the 40’s as we crossed from Canada back into the U.S.  It was an extraordinary site as we headed down the steep slopes into the bay.  

Along the Klondike Highway

The weather cleared as we parked up in Skagway at the Pullen Creek RV Park; there were four cruise ships up from Glacier Bay in the dock carrying some 12,000 people.  We encountered many of the ice-cream-consuming tourists as we explored Skagway; which turned out to be quite the destination with the Klondike Gold Rush mystique permeating the town, its old buildings giving off an aura of the Wild West.  The Gold Rush was brutal – when you consider that the prospectors had to endure such a savage environment in the hopes of striking it rich.  The museums along with the active, retro train station gave us a good feel of what it must have been like. 

They had an obscene amount of jewelry stores – I suppose because the whole idea is this is where gold is mined?  We did find a few nice art galleries amongst the interminable kitsch and discovered these gems (I go ape for art!).  The mother of the artist was there and said in the original painting of the Laughton Glacier her daughter painted in one of her boots that she had lost during a hike!

Whimsical Watercolors of the Inside Passage

Skagway reminded me a bit of Sisters, Oregon with the traditional facades and galleries and in the summer it is also teaming with tourists.

It’s now 6:00 a.m. and there is a loud hooting of a train then several crash-bangs!  The train has pulled into the harbor to greet the three cruise ships that had arrived – the fourth must be on its way. Either this is normal or they are making up with a post-Covid frenzy. Skagway must make a killing on tourism during this short window.  Come October the bay will start freezing over and the 300 some odd residents of Skagway will be encased in snow and ice until May.  I don’t know how they manage!  

We departed on a stellar warm day and headed out to Carcross, but were diverted several times to take in the scenery. 

We even spotted a pair of brown bears munching on dandelions on the side of the road.  

Brown Bear – ignoring us

Carcross is a charming town – the name is derived from Caribou Crossing.  The town was built to promote the indigenous tribes with lovely totems and buildings painted in the Tagish First Nations tradition.  The center was designed to represent local artists, but sadly there were only a few shops open.  Otherwise it is a lovely stop along the Klondike Highway.  

Carcross – Tagish First Nations

May 31 – June 3 Anchorage and Prince William Sound, Alaska

We landed in Anchorage during a rare heat wave; in Alaska that means temperatures into the high 70’s and it has been going on for days.  They usually don’t have weather like this until July and it’s very unusual for streaks like this to go on for days.  Well – it certainly worked out great for us.  After taking care of some personal business in Anchorage and picking up a rental car we headed to Whittier to kayak on Prince William Sound.  

The scenery was once again quintessential Alaska as we meandered along the Turnagain Arm with the sun reflecting from the dramatic peaks, creating an off-world metallic sheen along the water.  One pond we went by had mesmerizing ice sculptures partially submerged in glacial blue water  – the sun intensifying the ice into a sort of crystallized topaz.

We were scheduled to go through the Whittier Tunnel also known as the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.  It stretches for 2.5 miles and is a one-way system, hence the set schedules to come and go.  So it’s important to plan your trip if you have an appointment for kayaking or a cruise.

As it turned out our kayak trip was cancelled due to high winds, so we decided to flex and when we arrived in Whittier we booked one of the four hour Prince William Cruises, and since we had time on our hands we decided to hike the Portage Pass Trail.  

It turned out to be pretty steep – more like level three to four in some places and some pretty long stretches of slushy snow.  But the view of the Portage Glacier was worth the effort.  

The view from Portage Pass Trail

After a thigh busting hike we boarded the cruise and headed towards Blackstone Bay.

On the way we saw Stellar Sea Lions (we have these in Oregon as well), a raft of sea otters and then some lone ones floating on their backs happily watching us go by.   There was healthy amount of bird  life and waterfalls everywhere, some seriously raging down the sides of the cliffs; it reminded me of the movie Avatar for some reason.  It was certainly windy and even on such a warm day that wind got cold and I wound up huddling a good portion of the time in the back where I was safe from the constant pummeling, coming out in intervals, bracing myself to take in the views. 

We finally slowed down near Blackstone Glacier; we got a quarter of a mile from the glacier which is a good but safe distance.  The crew were fishing out some of the bigger chunks of ice as it apparently gets caught in some of the motors of the boat.  

Flocks of gulls were perched on icebergs, taking flight in our wake. 

The wind calmed down once we started drifting through the ice, looking in awe at the waterfalls to the right of the glacier, and listening to the roar of a gargantuan spilling of its melt into the water.  

I had photographed an arch that a minute later calved into the bay, sending shock waves that dispersed the debris field of ice.  I was only able to catch the tail end of the event as I wasn’t quick enough to the draw.  

The arch before it collapsed
The arch after it collapsed

We moved onto the next tidewater glacier known as Tebenkof.  You could hear the shifting and cracking of cavernous ice, waiting for it to calve but alas, it was not our luck for this next one to give us a show.  

After standing out for quite a while I started to get really cold and finally wandered back for a hot chocolate inside the boat.  We stopped by the nesting area of the black legged kittiwakes; waterfall after waterfall – bucolic.  

We headed back through the tunnel and as we emerged the sun was intensifying the sheen across the water; it never really sets here in the traditional sense- I’ve been up at 2 or 3:00 a.m. and it feels more like early dawn.  It has been an adjustment to go to sleep at 10:00 p.m. and it’s still broad daylight out.  

We stopped at a touristy spot as Bob wanted to do some gold panning and managed to collect a few impressive flakes!  

As our trip came to a close, I had the opportunity to catch up with my dear friend Janet; we’ve known each other for forty years and still manage to stay in touch.  You know it’s a special relationship when you see each other after a lapse of so many years and the connections reignites immediately and you want to spend endless hours catching up.  We never have enough time so I planted the seed to visit us in France and I suspect this will happen – we can easily fly to anywhere her and her husband decide to visit in Europe.  Some places and people are simply meant to be and this is one of them. She was the closure to a stellar visit to the incomparable State of Alaska.  

We left Anchorage on our way to Tok only to be met with yet another unfathomable site –  the 27 mile long Matanuska Glacier.  Surrounded by the vast green egress of a new spring lies a massive glacier casually visible from the side of the road.  Upon investigation, this masterpiece emerges from the frozen vice of the jagged range belonging to the Chugach National Forest; on the other side of the range lies Prince William Sound.  Investigating the icey interior of this range with my zoom lens reminds me of the likes of Yukon Cornelius.  On the outer rim it is a balmy 70 degrees yet the interior reveals a permanent housing of ice, flanked by jealous mountains. I’m not quite clear how the geography works but to say it is simply a curiosity seems inadequate.  

Alaska sets itself apart as an imperious, untamed world…. truly the greatest of all the wildernesses the United States has to offer.  Untamed – a concept I can can certainly relate to.

May 30 – Denali, AK

We sighted a black bear not long after we crossed the border into Alaska.  We were glad to get our unlimited Verizon service back, but had to switch our brains back to miles vs kilometers and US cash.  

After a nice stay in Tok we headed for Fairbanks.  The weather was fantastic and we were optimistic that we would be seeing Mt. Denali in all its glory: The weather is such that the mountain is visible only around 40% of the time so we would be one of the lucky few. 

We kept passing sweeping, endless mountain ranges, pressing themselves against bountiful skies.  

We stayed at the Wedgewood Resort in Fairbanks to give ourselves a scheduled break from the confines of BigB. They had a beautiful wildlife preserve adjacent to the resort – it’s a nice stroll through the boreal forest to a small lake where you maybe run into another person; it was a place of solitude with a chance for tree bathing.  

We arrived at the Denali RV Park and Motel and headed out to the National Park the next morning to go for a hike along the Savage River.  We stopped briefly at the visitor center on the way; we saw a moose and were warned about said moose by a ranger as she had a calf and had been getting aggressive.  Otherwise we navigated moose spoor that was prolific pretty much everywhere we went including the RV park.  

Savage River in Denali National Park

On our hike along the river we had the luck to spot Dall Sheep; one large male was sitting there along the ridge like a sphinx with a full set of curved horns on full display.  They were too far away for a photograph – even a high powered professional lens would have found the subject challenging to shoot.  We settled for what we could see through the binoculars and watched as several more came over the ridge. 

The hike along the river was exhilarating and there was still snow to navigate even though the weather was now in the sixties with barely a cloud in the sky.  The hike skirts the edge of the river and through portions of tundra with the Alaska range providing a dramatic backdrop.  I stopped on one of the upper trails to take it all in even though I really couldn’t; these dimensional spaces and experiences fill up too many senses – I settle for contemplating their existence and the associated memories.  

A gentle cooling breeze while the river raged on

You can take the bus through the park but due to landslides the trip is truncated – we opted for the drive to and from the trailhead instead – you can’t go any further into the park from Savage River without getting a ticket at the bus depot near the visitor center. We were happy with our sojourn as it was and were able to spot wildlife on our way back to the visitor center.

The wind blew heavily during the night and we woke without a cloud in the sky; this meant we were in luck to see the mountain itself.  We headed for the Denali South Viewpoint and about an hour into the drive we turned a corner and there it was – unmistakable, stately, towering above the vast tundra, subverting the surrounding peaks – the most majestic of the North American peaks. 

Mt Denali in all its glory

We were blessed to drive past the range and different variations of the mountain.  We arrived at Denali South Viewpoint and discovered many tourists had the same idea – though it wasn’t overly crowded.  The view was unbeatable and a short hike revealed an even better picture-perfect view.  Through the telescopes we could view the peak and the massive glacier running through the range.  

The boys were super happy they could see the mountain – no Jedi tricks here

The smell of spring permeated the surrounding forest, the warm breeze enveloped us and the view was beyond the imagination. 

Denali South Viewpoint

May 25 – Yukon Territory

We arrived at Watson Lake, the official switch-over to the Yukon Territory.  The Watson Lake RV Park is in a parking lot and was good for an overnight; it was quite crowded as the large caravans of RVs we had been warned about were starting to hit the road.  The showers were warm and clean and included in the price.  You get an hour of Wi-Fi but at least there was Verizon!  Verizon only allows 0.5 gb a day in Canada so it can get used up pretty fast before the data slows down considerably.  

We stopped by the famous “Sign Post Park” and found a few gems from Oregon.  

Watson Lake Signpost Park

We headed North along the Alaska Highway 1 which wasn’t too much different than the Stewart Cassiar but with a bit more traffic and there was some gravel along the way.  Otherwise the scenery was fantastic and we saw a bear and a caribou.

We played around trying to match the videos we were taking with the music we had playing on the stereo.  We had some success – adding music to the landscape brought tears to my eyes – it puts you in a place of awe.  

We reached the Yukon Motel and RV Park in Teslin which again was a bit of a parking lot, though it wasn’t crowded and had decent wi-fi just so long as you got close to the lodge itself.   They also had showers and bathrooms.  

We hiked around the marine park and hammed it up with the local wildlife.  

When I opened the skylight to the rig, I saw large muddy paw marks and realized that it wasn’t a squirrel that was fooling around on the roof at midnight when we were boondocking at the Clements Lake Recreation area; the Fisher Cat had come back and apparently partied for a while on top of our rig, muddying up the roof and solar panels. He then slid down the back (thankfully not scratching anything) onto our cargo carrier.  Bob cleaned up the mud and we can only guess this feline was marking its territory somehow.  

As it was Saturday night we decided to eat at the local restaurant – I had Yukon Elk sausage with perogies – quite the diverse combo and it was really good.  

We headed out to Whitehorse that we knew was more of a hub as it is also the capital.  The Caribou RV park turned out to be great; they had private bathrooms and showers and you got a voucher for Wi-Fi for the day.  Downtown Whitehorse was a bit of a ghost town as it was Sunday and also a holiday weekend for the Canadians so a lot of the shops were closed up.  

As we were there for a few days we decided to hike the Miles Canyon trail along the Yukon River.  We were told there were otter sightings but we didn’t see them – darn! They classify the hike as moderate but there were some seriously steep sections of the hill and one part that went straight up and you had to climb over large rocks to get up!  Thankfully I survived without incident as loose gravel is not my friend.  

Lower Canyon Trail

We stumbled upon Canyon City, that is an abandoned village in the woods that harks back to the gold rush days – the history of people coming to this wilderness in hopes of striking it rich are fascinating.  This part of the Yukon has been reclaimed by the wilderness – as unforgiving as the gold rush itself. 

Yukon River

We stopped by downtown Whitehorse again on our way out and one of the galleries was open so I took a gander and found a few cards but not a lot of First Nations artwork.  Mammoth fossils have apparently been found in this area and they had jewelry and figurines made from their bones which was interesting though I couldn’t find a piece that I had to have though.  

Polar Bear Reverie – Nathalie Parenteau

Our next stop was Destruction Bay through the Kluane mountain range.  We ran into inclement weather but we were heading into some more spectacular scenery.  The clouds clung to the mountain tops but the ice and snow fields were apparent along our drive.   The Kluane boasts several massive glaciers that are only accessible via plane – hence all the advertisements for air tours. 

We saw moose and elk along the road and though it had more traffic than Stewart Cassiar it still wasn’t overly busy.  

Not the best view – but still….

We reached Kluane Lake that was still frozen and stretched for miles – we saw our first caution sign for bighorn so kept an eye out but didn’t see any.  When we reached Destruction Bay Lodge there was only one other RV there.  The other RVs we saw along the way were boondocked in the day use pull outs.  The proprietor wasn’t there but had a sign on the office door that the 30 amp was working, but no water due to frozen pipes (similar to the Red Goat Lodge) and no available dump station and just go ahead and park up and then leave cash in an envelope.  Glad we decided to get cash in Vancouver!  We were thankful we had carried enough water to hold us over to the next RV Park near Beaver Creek.  The funny thing is we have great cell coverage – there is a gas station and a few homes but otherwise we haven’t seen much in the way of civilization.  

Canada has turned out to be full of contradictions for sure.  

Permafrost Parking – Destruction Bay

“In Destruction Bay it’s raining hard.  It’s a place where civilization shouldn’t be, had been blown from the face of the earth in decades past, but somehow remains, where nature keeps pushing its boundaries with unforgiving ice and wind that only abates for a few months in the summer.  The sun breaks through, a passing wave at the sky and mountains though it does less to warm than it does to illuminate.  The clouds clutch at the blue and then descend into gray, unable to completely smother the majesty of the Kluane snow fields and endless glaciers. The days grow long, the sun resting near midnight then awake again at dawn.  Casting shadows but little warmth as if the tilt of the earth is an annoyance to be toyed with.”

After a leisurely morning watching the sun spray across the mist between the splendor of the endless peaks, we headed north.  The road got pretty rough with some nasty swells and frost heaves then it dissipated as we approached the Lake Creek Campground where we stopped for tea.  It was devoid of campers and the smell of boreal pine was intense.  The creek flowed quietly along with the accompanying woodpeckers and ravens in chorus throughout the forest.  

Tea time at Lake Creek

It’s a bit of a haul to get from anywhere to these campgrounds and we wondered who actually comes here.  Unlike in the U.S. where there are substantial towns within a few hours of most campgrounds.  We were in no rush to get to Koidern just south of Beaver Creek.  I was glad for these shorter stops as spending all day on a potentially rough road didn’t seem too inviting.  

The frost heaves continued along with spots of simply gravel; when people talk about this stretch of road it actually starts above Destruction Bay and you will occasionally get a respite but not for long.  We traveled at a leisurely pace to keep the rig from being bunged up too much.  

We arrived at Discovery Yukon Lodge outside of Koidern; they had just switched on the water so we were lucky there and had full hookups.  The permafrost this time of year has made the water supplies a bit of a touch and go.  They didn’t have Wi-Fi in the lodge as advertised claiming they had no phone service (there was no cell service) and I had to pay in cash even though there was clearly a credit card machine on the counter.  I’m not sure how they function the rest of the year or if they wind up paying for a line via satellite during the high season.

We decided to stretch our legs and hiked along a game trail then to the river and got a good few miles in.  We ran across abandoned moose skulls – not sure why they were just deposited there but kinda cool just the same. The lodge has a bunch on its roof and quite a collection of taxidermy in the office.  

These are kinda heavy

The upside to traveling this time of year is the drama of the landscape that wouldn’t be the same without the snow.  

The Yukon evokes images of vast forests and tundras filled with caribou and wandering moose.  A place romanticized more by the gold rush than by its beauty that threatens to swallow you whole.  And on this trip we only scratched the surface.  

Pickax Lake

May 20 – Stewart Cassiar Highway, BC

After leaving Telkwa we headed for Highway 37, the Stewart Cassiar Highway.  We had more dramatic landscape for quite a while on the 16 before we turned onto Highway 37.  After a few hours the landscape started to unfold into a winter-spring melt, leaving thick snow on the mountain tops like a Dairy Queen soft swirl.  I felt like we were sliding along a tongue into great gaping jaws; the mountains erupt from around sea level, jutting straight up into jagged peaks that conversely cascade to the lush green valley floor.  The weather actually started to warm into the 60’s.  Soon, we spotted moose-poop-spore and the road signs were now showing symbols of moose and bear but not deer.  I suspect there are still deer but they certainly weren’t kidding on the bear. We spotted our first one off the side of the road in a small meadow munching on something and giving us an annoying look. We saw the next one a ways down the road, running across the highway into an oncoming vehicle – it made it to the other side safely.  We slowed down and saw it tucked amongst the trees.  The last one we saw just off the side of the road and we managed to get a shot.

Still no moose though! 

The roads were in good condition and there wasn’t much traffic.  Our plan was to head towards Stewart on Highway 37a that turned out to be insanely spectacular.  We passed multiple avalanche warnings with other signs that warned of planned explosions, an unnatural betrayal of the natural order.  Thankfully the threat of avalanches was over, but it was obvious where it could be problematic.  There were still signs of early spring snow on the sides of the highway, but otherwise the countryside was dry save for the numerous waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.  The roads were actually in good condition considering the brutal weather conditions they endure; we ran into a few frost heaves but nothing that slowed us down much.  

Then we turned a corner and were met with a glacier that spilled into a partially frozen lake.  We paused to contemplate the glacial blue melt against the slate and snow, the only sound being the wind, the only movement being the ice flows across the lake.  We didn’t realize that this was Bear Glacier. We were simply impressed with stumbling upon this stately feature along the road.  

As with the glacier, you can always expect the unexpected; due to the unusually cold spring the Kinaskan and Meziadin Provincial Parks closed and cancelled my reservations due to snow (though we couldn’t find any in the forecast) and wouldn’t open again until the 20th, then the RV Park in Stewart cancelled as well and closed permanently. Seriously, snow…..again!!!!  I scrambled for other accommodations and no one was answering their phones in either Stewart or Hyder.  I found a recreation site near Clements Lake and decided to take our chances and boondock there.  

When we arrived the road into the recreation area was covered in a couple of feet of slushy snow, something that BigB simply could not navigate so we wound up boondocking near the entrance amongst the pines, they had cleared out that area but for some reason not the road into the recreation area.  

Thankfully we are self-contained and set up house for the evening, along with another RV similar to our size.  Not long after we settled in we felt something rocking the RV; well the bear spray was in one of the bays so I handed Bob the pepper spray in case it was a curious bear.  He didn’t see anything but the neighbor in the RV parked behind us said a “Fisher Cat” had been walking all over our cargo rack!  We never saw it but found out it is like a large mongoose.  

Then we had a run of folks trying to find a place to camp or boondock and they saw us, looked at the road to Clements Lake and turned around.  One almost got stuck trying to drive through the snow and we were wondering if we needed to help bail them out.  The problem is none of the Provincial Parks in the area are open.  We were warned about the remoteness, but didn’t bank on everything in the area cancelling on us. 

About midnight I was awakened by a misdirected squirrel who had landed on our roof, chirping and confused.  It eventually quieted down. 

Like the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, despite the weather challenges we had, you certainly can’t beat the scenery.  

The next morning the sun broke through and we drove back to Bear Glacier for coffee and breakfast.  Like the Canyonlands Needles Outlook in Utah, there was no one around and we drank coffee in blissful solitude, watching the morning sun break over the ridge to illuminate the blue sky and surrounding cliffs. The gulls glided across the icefields that fed into the lake, celebrating the glorious morning.  The water falls tumbled down the precipices, feeding the lake below, converging its tears into a glacial translucence welcomed by the riverock, a pristine race easily witnessed through a magnificent wilderness lens. 

After this meditation, we spotted beaver further up the road and of course more bears.  

Breakfast Bear Glacier

Alas, still no moose….

Be warned that we had no cell service and even after driving back to Highway 37 we thought we would have encountered a cell tower but, hence no luck.  

We swung by the Kinaskan Provincial Park that was supposed to be closed but we found it open.  We stopped for tea and pondered whether to stay in one of the lovely spots but we really needed to get in touch with our realtor as our house is in the process of being sold.  

We arrived at Iskut thinking there would be a cell tower, still no luck.  We arrived at the Red Goat lodge and RV park and managed to get some wi-fi and hookups.  None of the major carriers can be bothered with cell service on the Stewart Cassiar Highway.  In a way it’s fitting, it forces you to embrace the remoteness we used to experience camping years ago.  If you want to be off-the-grid where the wild things are – this is your ticket!  

We set up camp across from the partially frozen Eddontenajon Lake.  The weather was nice and since there were so many sites available (until we pack of RVs showed up) we decided to be naughty and hijacked one of the camping spots that overlooked the lake to build a fire (they were 15 amp which is why we didn’t choose it in the first place); we essentially spread across two camping spots.  

We ended the day with our version of “Fire and Ice.”

Sheer bliss!!

After a cold night (down to 28 degrees) we headed out to Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory – this would take us through the remainder of the Stewart Cassiar Highway.  We drove for several non-descript miles until Dease Lake.  The traffic is scarce and there isn’t much along this stretch of highway; you really are in the wild.  No cell, no gas stations or towns for miles; not the best place to break down.  

We passed our first “caution – caribou” signs and then suddenly we saw a moose in a marsh along with swans, loons, geese, duck and other birds whose origin I wasn’t sure of.  

Our first moose!

We started to meander once again through spectacular mountain ranges with never-ending frozen lakes.  

Then, as you can expect the unexpected with wildlife, a caribou appeared on the side of the road – I only had a second to catch a poor quality iPhone image before it disappeared further into the forest.  

Poor image but still – we saw a caribou!

We continued our trek through this remote wilderness, barely seeing any other cars, disconnected from society wondering if this road ever got much busier; you drive through it and there are some campgrounds and the occasional towns where the population can’t be more than fifty people.

After nearly 180 miles and around four hours of driving we passed approximately 15 cars and 4 motorcycles.  

If you want to disappear into the wild, then the Stewart Cassiar Highway is a must-do.  

Stewart Cassiar Highway – where the wild things are!

April 27 – The Sea Remembers its Own

This post is about a journey that started over 80 years ago that ferried my father from a remote farm in North Dakota to the tropical paradise island of Oahu as a U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Band Member, Musician 2nd class. Having been deprived of his connection throughout most of my childhood, I have been like a stubborn orphan seeking a familial connection denied me, and through his letters I have joined him on his journey through the tumult of World War II.  I never flinched at the intergenerational trauma because, as a cult survivor, I have developed an unusual taste for the uncomfortable. 

Covid had put a damper on our trip to Hawaii that had originally been planned for 2020, this change of plan allowed me more time to explore what has turned out to be a legacy that has found its final resting place at Pearl Harbor. 

I have spent years, off and on, pulling together his letters, pictures, ancient negatives and periphenalia.  I recently contacted members of the US Navy Pacific Fleet Band to find a suitable home for these precious artifacts that laid dormant in a closet after his death in 1996.  I had the pleasure of connecting with the vibrant and dynamic Lt. Luslaida Barbosa, the Navy Pacific Fleet Bandmaster: She has an impressive resume – she is not only one of the few female US Navy Bandmasters, she is also a woman of color (Puerto Rican) and the only one who moved up the ranks while raising children.  I’m honored to know her and make the aquaintance of such a trailblazer.  

She met us briefly at the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, but as we were boarding the ferry to the memorial our conversation was cut short.  So I asked to meet up with her again the following week. She has also been assisting me with finding a home for my father’s trombone that he played during the war – it is now destined for the Naval School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia. 

She also advised me there was a memorial ceremony at the USS Utah site for a musician from the Enterprise – Lt. Barbosa thought it was related to us – it was simply a fantastical coincidence amongst so many it seems.  

The USS Arizona Memorial

On the ferry, I was accommpanied by boat-load of strangers who were oblivious to my father’s history, feeling a lack of intimacy that I had hoped for as we were shuffled around the memorial for the short time allowed.  The Arizona Memorial isn’t simply a place of rememberance, but an underwater cemetery of the most profound kind; you come here to pay your respects to all those who died a ghastly death as it was sunk with precision by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.  When I contemplate this gargantuan, rusting tomb emitting its black tears, I hope those surrounding me also consider all that happened that day and how a slight turn of events could have changed the course of history for the U.S.  When I look up, the Mighty Mo stands guard in the distance, a sentinel, proud, defiant – unchallenged.  She is all that remains of battleship row – her brethren either submerged or eventually scrapped.  The power of the symbology becomes apparent:  Testimonies to the beginning and the end of one of the most devastating wars in history. #neverforget #neversurrender 

The Mighty Mo

I left with my mental notes to contemplate the wreckage and what my father would have witnessed as the USS Enterprise steamed into the harbor the day after the attack; the sky black with smoke, the massive hulks of mangled ships, the bodies of the unrecovered, flames – layers of carnage that would be forever fused in his mind. If the Enterprise has been moored in the harbor on December 7th, I probably wouldn’t be alive – writing this blog. 

Ten days later, after a lovely respite on the North Shore, my husband and I returned to Honolulu and spent our final day back at Pearl Harbor; our first stop was the USS Missouri – the Mighty Mo.

The scale and power of this battleship gave me perspective on what my father would have experienced during his service on the USS W. Virginia.  The guns must have been as deafening as the emotional toll on its inhabitants.

I’m always in awe at how mankind can accomplish such feats of engineering.  

There is a dent on the side of the Mo where a Kamakaze (aka Divine Wind) clipped the ship with its wing – and miraculously a ship photographer captured the exact moment of the crash.  It was a failed attempt but a fitting scar; these pilots gave their lives by the thousands.  My father wrote of them attacking the USS West Virginia. They did massive damage to the pacific fleet and were a force to be reckoned with.  

The slow unveiling of my father’s history is like the maze of a great battleship, you can easily get lost in the corridors, trip, bang your head on the low ceilings, bump into the narrow passage ways.  You pass the fortified and impregnable bulk heads thinking there is no way out, then you stumble across the engine room, the crew quarters and the mess hall.  You contemplate the inception of massive turrets that hold the outer world at bay. Then you some how find your way out of the darkness into the museum level and the #neverforget history of the ship itself.

When you emerge, back on deck, you face the Arizona Memorial, the three immortal gun turrets saluting all those who perished and praising the grit of all those who survived.  

I’m now standing still in the spot where the Japanese surrendered on September 2nd, 1945 that ended the war.  I welled up a bit as my father was so close to being at that very spot:  It would have been his final performance for the Navy. He decided to return home instead; he had survived too many conflicts and whatever twists of fate, while so many of his comrades perished – the toll of war left him devoid of any further adventure. I wonder in hindsight if he wished he had been part of such a significant, historical event.  

After our mesmerizing tour of the Mighty Mo, we went to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to meet up with Lt. Barbosa at the Pacific Fleet Band base. It turned out Bob could not join me, as he did not have his passport and is a dual citizen.  It was such a disappointment but you don’t argue with the Navy. 

She took me through the building that had been housing the fleet bands since the 1940’s.  I imagined my father walked these halls at some point.  There are no longer bands assigned to ships so this is now the hub that holds all their offices, where they rehearse for events; I met so many of the young band members in their fatigues – their respectability was refreshing and their fascination with my father’s history utterly endearing. 

Lt. Barbosa kindly drove me back to the visitor center to meet back up with Bob. Bidding my farewell, I realized I had done the right thing to cement my father’s legacy for future generations. So many I talk to, do not know what to do with their old letters and artifacts from wars gone past:   All I did was contact and see who could help me – the result has been beyond what I could have ever anticipated.  

We visited the WW II Aviation Museum, rode in a simulator, observed the relics of planes and bullet holes, and wandered through the hangers made familiar by Hollywood movies – but what happened here was far from Hollywood.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial not-so-gently reminds us of what we must never forget.  People visit in droves and I hope they internalize the sacrifices and suffering that too many endured for our freedoms.  These are not trite words, the Greatest Generation was born of tragedy and resiliency.  It’s ok to exceed your comfort zone as they did.

I have felt both empowered and desolate – not like those who lost loved ones to the war – but to a memory I never had the chance to fully understand.  I understand better now.  Having had no scattering of ashes, I instead decided to have a burial at sea, submerging his memory into the harbor itself where his time capsule rests like a pearl, in peace amongst the ghosts of his comrades.  The glass of the capsule will remain but the cap will eventually rust – the sand will drift and the photo will deteriorate.  It may surface someday as beach glass – beach glass of a special kind that maybe will transfer its magic to an aspiring sailor or musician.  Or if it surfaces intact there is a message there for anyone who will listen.  

As the spirit world has suggested, perhaps it’s as much closure for him as it is for me.  

RIP W.A Bender – you have now come full circle; the glass did not shatter, like the delicate resiliency of a human life, but it will meet its fate, as all things do, as the seal turns to rust.  Ashes and dust have no place here and disappear with the wind, but the sea, in its mighty wisdom….will always remember its own. 

April 5 Yosemite National Park

It didn’t really register to me that it was spring until we got to Bakersfield and saw various bulbs and even roses blooming.  Add the orange blossoms and I felt like we discovered a slice of paradise after being plagued by snow, hail and high deserts devoid of blossoms.  

We accidentally took the long route to get to Yosemite though it turned out to be quite beautiful with farmlands with blooming flowers and green fields.  As we gained elevation there was the welcome site of pine trees, mostly Ponderosa pines. When you are from the Pacific Northwest, making the transition back to the “green belt” is a welcoming event.  I was in need of some serious tree bathing.  

The rock here is like a seafoam colored granite with some sparkly bits that was quite beautiful.  The roads were hairpin with little or no gaurdrails, though the views made up for it.   The alpine lupines were blooming and there were occasional fields of wildflowers sprayed across the meadows. 

After a while, we lost signal thinking it would pick up again as we approached the park.  Civilization was starting to emerge so it was quite surprising when we got to the Lake Yosemite RV Park, while quite popular, was devoid of any signal.  We were fortunately blessed with lovely weather and a spot on the river, though the park was quite crowded and somewhat noisy and you had to pay for wifi.

We had several deer sightings and almost ran into Bambi on our way out of the RV Park.  All around Yosemite the deer tend to wander onto the roads.

Upon entering Yosemite we had expected more of a “slow reveal” of the wonders of the park.  Instead we came face-to-face with El Capitan – trying to reconcile what we were looking at…then the realization came.  The sheer scale of it emerging from the valley floor is incomparable to anything else we have witnessed.  Then came Horsetail Falls and all of its thundering glory.  The surrounding cliffs are like a supporting cast save for Half Dome that demands its own audience.  

As we were pretty early, and even then the park was getting busy, we snagged a parking spot at one of the campground trailheads.  Thankfully BigB is only 24 feet, anything bigger would have had a hard time.  Some of the roads into the trail heads has serious pot holes, not something you would expect in a major park such as this.  We trekked a couple of miles to Mirror Lake and were blessed with a gorgeous view down the valley with the monoliths reflecting in the water.  We stopped for a snack and to contemplate the scenery.  

Mirror Lake

The day was getting warmer than we had anticipated and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was hard to imagine it had snowed about a week before and the weather can be touch and go in April.  We wandered around the now packed visitor center, wondering what it must be like in the height of summer.  We are so fortunate to be doing this now as the National Parks are starting to require reservations and shuttle service to manage the increasing crowds.  

We left the park via “Tunnel View,” even though the parking was limited we managed to squeeze BigB into a couple of spaces – we were only going to be there for a little while. 

The name does not even begin to describe the sheer scale of what you are witnessing – this particular view is the one made famous by Ansel Adams; his renditions are magical though you need to see it in person – there are no substitutes for the real thing (sorry Ansel but I’m sure you understand).  You don’t embrace this view, it embraces you as if to say “thank you for preserving me – this is how I give back to those who will protect me for generations to come.”

The immensity of this gesture subdues you into a heavenly state of awe.  

Tunnel View