Thursday, October 1
I’m about 90% sure I see a wolf when driving to my morning truck appointment in West Yellowstone. The air is cool, traffic is almost non-existant, and puddles grace the pavement from last night’s rain. Around a curve a light colored shape is trotting along the shoulder towards me on the other side of the road.
At first I’m angry, thinking that someone let their pet off leash and now it’s running amok. But there is no owner hurrying after it. As it draws closer I see she is large and a dirty white color, with proud erect ears and no collar to speak of. She’s also limping noticeably, but the pain she must be feeling isn’t slowing her down.
I say she because I’m nearly positive this is a wolf, and there is only one known white wolf in Yellowstone, the old alpha female of the Canyon Pack. Called “Valley Girl” by some wolf watchers, her and her mate, a collared black wolf #712M, are pretty well known in Yellowstone because they’re not afraid of being seen by people and traditionally have had a large range that extends from Canyon up to Mammoth and down to Old Faithful. Last year the aging pair produced no pups and the pack shrunk considerably, leading wolf enthusiasts to question the pack’s future. This year I heard Valley Girl’s daughter (or maybe granddaughter?) took over as pack alpha.
The trotting canine spares not even a glance for me as we pass each other, then Bertha finishes going around the curve and I’m out of sight. Just past that curve, an SUV is stopped in a pullout and a man with a camera makes eye contact with me as we pass. I believe we’re thinking the same thing: Was that really what I think that was?
I can’t say for sure if it was Valley Girl or not, but what a great sendoff from Yellowstone either way! (Edit: Yes, this was Valley Girl! Another visitor got pictures of her in this area the same day I saw her and the sighting was confirmed on the Yellowstone Wolf Project website)
After getting a green light on Bertha from the mechanic (I’ll have one or two minor things to take care of once I’m down in Texas, but nothing that’ll impact this trip) I drive back to the RV and continue packing up camp.
There’s an advisory out for the mountains, snow is expected this weekend starting tomorrow at higher elevations, and all of us employees who were released yesterday want to get out of Yellowstone before the storm hits.
Originally my plan is to head south through part of the Tetons and then turn southeast on highway 287 at Moran junction. It does have a pass over 9000 feet but should be clear if I can make it across today.
Sadly I forgot my laptop at the auto repair shop in West Yellowstone (when I published the last post on Thursday itself). This necessitates a complete change in plans.
After hitching up I retrace my steps from this morning and leave through the west entrance, then stay on highway 20 as it curves southwest and into Idaho. It’ll take longer to get down to Texas this way, but it’s a state I haven’t been to yet so that’s a bonus!
It’s pretty country, rolling forested hills interspersed with golden valleys through Targhee National Forest. There is one 6% grade lasting two miles, it’s not hard.
South of the national forest, farms dominate the valley and towns become more common. Not far before Idaho Falls the Tetons become visible from my driver side window, it’s interesting to see them from the west even if they are far in the distance. A plume of smoke rises up not as far in the distance, I wonder if that’s a wildfire or a controlled burn…
At Idaho Falls I merge onto I15, and not far beyond that a curious sight greets me. The grassland abruptly ends under mounds of lumpy, broken black rock which look suspiciously like old lava. Grass doesn’t grow on it and instead sage dominates, interspersed with juniper trees. A sign looms up: “Geological Site Ahead”. Curiosity necessitates that I pull over.
It’s a standard rest area, but also includes a not-so-standard self-guided paved trail through the lava flow. I don’t have time to take the full loop, as the sun is setting but I do the little quarter mile one.
It is lava. Not from a volcano, but pushed up through cracks in the earth. The Hawaiian term for this type of lava is “pahoehoe”. The lava was a super heated liquid flow when it reached the surface a few thousand years ago. The skin cooled first and lava continued to flow underneath, wrinkling the surface into ropy coils. As it turns out much of this part of Idaho has lava like this, but it’s older and buried under surface soil now, as this flow will eventually be.
Rabbits abound along the trail, I must see a half dozen of the critters as I read the informational signs and try to snap pictures in the failing light. While it’s hard to get a good picture of the dark rocks, the wispy clouds overhead make for a pretty sunset.
After the hike is done I go about locating tonight’s stop. Earlier this year I wrote a post on repositioning trips, where the goal is simply to make miles and not sight-see, and this is one of those kinds of trips. I use the handy dandy overnightrvparking.com website to locate most of my free overnight stops when I’m not looking for hookups or something scenic, and am pleased to discover a Walmart not far away in Blackfoot that allows overnight parking. That’s where I’ll spend the night as I haven’t been to a Walmart in well over a month and I have a little shopping to do.
Friday, October 2
The Walmart here in Blackfoot, ID has to be about the quietest Walmart I’ve ever slept at. Trees block the noise from the interstate and the west end of the parking lot is it’s own little nook away from the traffic coming into and out of the store, it’s nice.
I’m amazed at the number of magpies I see along the road as I continue south on I15. Dozens of them all told, sightings continue well into Wyoming. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At McCammon I take the exit onto Highway 30. Lava Hot Springs sounds like a promising place but when I drive by it looks more like an amusement park than anything else, with a large water park and a touristy kind of feel. After that low mountains close in on both sides and the land slowly becomes more arid and less populated. I lose my Verizon signal completely for a good hour and a half along this route.
There are a few passes on this road but other than slowing a person down they’re not hard. There was one sign for a 5% grade lasting two miles, I hardly had to use my brakes for that.
Soda Springs lies along highway 30, a stopover along the historic the Oregon Trail route. Attending grade school in the 90’s, the Oregon Trail educational computer game is something I remember with a lot of fondness. Usually by the time I got to Soda Springs, half my party of pilgrims was dead. I didn’t realize until later in life that you should never short yourself on oxen when buying supplies at the beginning of the game, the more you have the faster you travel and the less time your people have to get sick or injured.
There will be no sick ox, spoiled food, or bad water to foil my trip. I stop at a Flying J to fuel up Bertha and myself then continue driving through folded hills that are looking more and more like badlands. One spectacular specimen looms up to the north of the road and I learn through signs that this is Fossil Butte National Monument.
When my phone signal comes back, I know I must be getting close to I80. At Green River, WY along I80 are some fantastic cliffs, buttes, and monuments. I haven’t been to Monument Valley yet, so this looks pretty great to me.
It’s been raining on and off all day, but not heavy rain that would slow travel down. As I progress further into Wyoming the land flattens, and the little cells of rain are visible from a long way off.
Because of these clouds, the sunset is once again quite nice, and I get to see a rainbow too.
Tonight I stop at another Flying J, just west of Rawlins, WY. There are parking spots here specifically for RVers but they’re back in and only the width of a regular parking spot. Not a problem for my diminutive rig!
Saturday, October 3
When I wake up this morning my fridge is off because I’ve run out of propane. There is a propane fueling station right here at Flying J and it should be no problem to refill it and be on my way, but the attendant who comes out doesn’t realize that RV propane fittings are different from say, backyard bbq ones. It’s reverse threaded, so it needs to be unscrewed clockwise (right) instead of left. He turns it the wrong way and my assembly pops apart in the wrong spot, creating a potential leak and fire hazard.
As it’s Saturday the propane specialty place is Rawlins is closed. For a while I’m thinking I’ll be without propane this weekend until I can take it into a shop on Monday, but the manager manages to get someone on the phone to drive out and take a look at it.
The man who shows up about a halfhour later is a member of the local fire department judging by his hat and clothes. We screw everything back together, turn on the propane, and he takes a spray bottle full of soapy water and squirts it on the connections to see if any bubbles show up, which would indicate a leak.
No bubbles, my system is pronounced safe. I get a later start than I’d hoped for, but in the end the snafu ended up costing me nothing but a little time and the propane itself. Quick trivia, did you know that 20 lb propane tanks have an expiration date? They can only be used 12 years before they need to be re-certified. My tank was expired so it wasn’t legal to refill it, I ended up exchanging it for a newer one ($21.50 with trade in), and my old tank will get sent off to be examined and re-certified if it’s still in good enough shape.
The land gets hillier again east of Rawlins as I continue on I80. Pine trees carpet the peaks, near the road long rows of wooden fencing have been set up – to keep snow from drifting I think.
East of Laramie lies Curt Gowdy State Park, full of rounded granite boulders, visible from the interstate. Google reviews of the campground and park seem favorable, it would be neat to see it up close sometime.
At Cheyenne I point Bertha’s nose south, exiting onto I25 and into Colorado. From Fort Collins all the way through Colorado Springs the traffic is heavy. I25 goes right through the heart of Denver, which at 3 pm on a Saturday is busy, but not impossibly so. Traffic comes to a near stand still three or four times, but it never stays stopped for long. At some point I’m going to write a post about driving an RV through big cities, I’ve done it enough times now to have a system worked out.
The Rockies are now to the west, out my passenger side window. The farther south I go, the greener things get. Trees have leaves again, farmer’s fields are lush. A storm looms ahead, it’s been dry driving so far today.
At a rest stop near Pueblo, the driver of the semi parked next to me calls me over and asks if I came from Wyoming. Not knowing who he is or what he’s getting at, I answer in a friendly but vague way. He explains that he thinks he passed me on I80 this morning, and passed me again this afternoon on I25. Knowing that he’s not being creepy, I’m more forthcoming with my answers. Turns out he’s delivering wine down to San Antonio, we’re taking the same route. I meet his traveling companion, a Pomeranian who has to be the most laid back of the breed I’ve ever met. He’s from Virginia originally but has been a truck driver for many years. We talk about life on the road, I show him how to do something on his smart phone that he’s been having troubles with, then we get back into our respective vehicles as the storm arrives and plinking on the roof announces the presence of small hail.
Back on I25, the second rainbow in as many days heralds the end of the storm. As the clouds blow over I am treated yet again to a pretty neat sunset over the mountains.
Tonight’s stop is the Acorn Plaza, a truck stop in Walsenburg, CO. The back of the parking lot looks west toward the mountains, and I think I should have a pretty view come tomorrow morning.
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