I am back home, visiting my parents once again. I searched my blogs from the last few years, and realized that I have been making this trip more frequently in recent times. And I have been posting pictures and writing my impressions about the experience over and over again. It is a good thing. The essential, core, feeling that comes with a trip home never seems to change regardless of the circumstances which bring me here, which tends to be different each time. This time, I am here for my Dad’s 90th birthday celebration, a celebration of a life well lived, and still being lived. I am happy to be home for the occasion. Once again.
Another Christmas vacation has gone by, another family gathering with siblings and families has happened, this time in Florida. It was during this occasion that the fact that I was the oldest person in the group hit me a little harder than I expected. Maybe it was something that somebody said, or something that I noticed in the mirror. Seniority was not something that I had paid much attention to in past years. But this year something led to a moment of contemplation on the subject. Perhaps the age threshold that one had reached in September was not as much of a artificial artifact as one tended to consider it. Many of us are getting along in years, and there are consequences. For some, it happens so slowly that you do not realize it is happening, and then, suddenly, BAM!, there it is! You take notice of how much you have changed since you last checked – perhaps when you were a youth. You can no longer play the pretender. Your mind catches up with your body.
And at this point in life, after having achieved seniority of the senses, and after many other such Christmas vacations with family, I am in such a state of mind that I am there simply to enjoy the company of the family. I have not planned to do much other than relax. I do not need any additional “entertainment”. I just need the time to chill out. If people plan something that interests me, I can participate. The others in our group all have it all under control. I only needed to keep an eye on the liquid refreshment.I was prepared to help where needed, but there hardly seemed to be any need for that. I did cook dinner one evening. If somebody had asked, I would have cooked again without feeling any pressure about it. Heck, if there was not a list of dinners generated ahead of time, I could have even volunteered once again.
I want to keep it simple these days. I just wanted to be able to lounge around, and to be able to do my daily exercise, a routine that I am having great difficulty keeping up with recently. The over 40 miles of walking and running that I accomplished during the holiday, some of it even under rainy conditions, was worth it. I could have spent more time with the others on the beach, but I chose to be lazy, and, as a result, perhaps also a little anti-social. Its OK, the old man needs his nap time and rest to recover from his exercise routine.
I did catch a sunrise,but missed all the sunsets. The pool at the back of the house provided the opportunity to chill out. We listened to music. We even listened to the changing sounds and rhythms emanating from the starlings sitting on the tree beside the pool.(This recording is from Youtube.)
We enjoyed our time playing with the young’uns. The laughter that results from all involved is pure innocence. The older kids have all grown up. There seems to be a deeper sense to togetherness. It must be encouraged. Hopefully we can continue to meet during our Christmases so that they continue to get the opportunity to further bond and support each other. We celebrated Christmas as usual. We celebrated the usual birthdays. We went to the usual services at church.
Games were played and dinners were consumed.There was the trivia competition (where I was reminded that the number 1 is not a prime number!). There was the gingerbread making session where the sampling process that was going on as the dough was being prepared had me concerned. The baking process took care of my concerns.
We went out to a restaurant for dinner only once this year, there being no undue pressure from anybody, or on anybody, (from what I could see) to have to do so. I think most were content to hang out at home and on the beach. Perhaps we might even skip eating out the next time and still be happy as a group.On the other hand, it can truthfully be stated that the cooking efforts at home resulted in top-notch dinner fare and many original culinary masterpieces that everybody enjoyed. Yum!
The family gathering happens these days without my having to do much. The old man is just along for the ride.
The first day was a very long travel day. The family was going to gather in Wyoming, and get ready for the visits to the National Parks that were starting the next day.
We departed from BWI in the early afternoon. Arrival at Salt Lake City, UT, was in the early evening after a flight that lasted more than four hours. Angela landed up separately at about the same time. We picked up the rental car and began our drive towards Jackson, WY, as soon as we could. Very soon we were off the highway and driving north over smaller roads along the border of Idaho and Wyoming, with instructions being given to me every so often to turn either left or right from one road to another. This being the boondocks in the western states, the speed limits on these roads were quite high. Nevertheless, it took us about 5 hours to cover the distance and get to our destination.
Throughout our drive to Jackson, we were in touch with Christina and Jesse who were landing at Jackson Hole later in the evening. We all ended up meeting up at the restaurant for the Roadhouse Brewing Company in Jackson rather late in the evening just before the kitchen was about to close. We were hungry and thirsty. It had been a while since we had our lunch at BWI airport. The craft beer was welcome after the long drive. The food was good.
It was well past my normal bedtime by the time we started our drive from Jackson to Driggs, ID, to our place for the night. Very soon after we left town the road began to climb up the mountainside to the Teton Pass. We were warned about 10% grades! And then the snow also started falling. I had to slow down further on the winding mountain road. It was a little challenging. We crossed into Idaho after descending from the Teton Pass. We had a few more miles to drive after that to get to Driggs.
It was close to midnight (Mountain time!) by the time we located the place we were staying that night. I crashed out very soon. I was dead tired.
It was quite cold when we woke up the next morning, well below freezing. There was also a thin layer of snow on the car.Coffee was being made in the house, but, this being the first morning of the trip, we were not prepared for breakfast.Jesse and I drove into the main section of town to pick up something to eat. While we were there, we went to the local tire store to have the tires on the vehicle checked out since the low pressure indicator had come on. We were told that there was most likely nothing wrong with the tires. The change in the air temperature made events like the low pressure indicator coming on fairly common. It turned out to be the correct diagnosis. The indicator light went off after a few hours of driving. This phenomenon repeated itself the next day.
The objective for the first day was to drive towards Yellowstone National Park. We would have to drive north through Grand Teton National Park in order to get there. The goal was to get to our place for the night by evening time. This was going to be primarily a driving day. We would be driving into Yellowstone from the South entrance and leaving for our place for the evening through the West entrance (or exit, in this case).
After getting ready for the day and repacking our stuff back into our vehicle, we drove back towards Wyoming and Jackson. We had prepared ourselves for a very cold day. We had to drive through the Teton Pass once again, this time in the opposite direction. This being our first day in the mountains, we had to stop every once in a while to enjoy our surroundings and the recently fallen snow. We had not been able to see anything the previous night.It was snowing once again by the time we got to the top of Teton pass. Jackson lay in the valley in front of us, but the view was not very clear because of the precipitation. It was also very windy and brutally cold at the top of the pass, something that we were not that well prepared for. We had to take to obligatory pictures quickly. We stopped at the supermarket in Jackson to pick up some supplies for the next few days, and then we were on our way.
Soon we were beginning to get our first views of the Tetons – covered with a layer of fresh snow!Our first stop was to be the car rental place at Jackson Hole airport. The reason for the stop was to add one more driver to the list of people allowed to drive the rental vehicle. Unfortunately, our rental company did not have a booth in the airport. We had made the mistake of not stopping at their office in the town of Jackson on the way. I was going to have to drive the rest of the day since we did not have a registered second driver. The next opportunity for us to add such would be at the town of West Yellowstone in Montana, on the way to the place we were staying at for a couple of nights.
Over millions of years, the river has carved out a meandering path over the plain. The layering of the erosion that happened at different times in the history of the river clearly shows, and can be studied more carefully from a few viewpoints. You can also drive down to today’s river side.On the way towards Yellowstone, we took a detour to the east towards a location that was supposed to have good views. We ended up driving through a snow storm. On the other side of the storm we arrived at a section of the Continental Divide and decided that this was a far as we would head in this direction. The views were not as great as we expected. We turned back after getting some nourishment into us.This was a view of the Teton Mountains on our drive back to the park.We passed an entrance to the Grand Teton National Park and stopped to take the obligatory picture.This was another view of the Grand Tetons as we were driving beside the Snake river.We had to actually drive through an entrance gate for Grand Teton NP, and then for a little while along a highway, before we got to the entrance for Yellowstone. At that point we discovered that one of the roads that was closed because of the weather was the one that went past the famous geyser, Old Faithful. This was the road that provided the most direct route to our destination for the night. Fortunately, the roads in Yellowstone form a loop, and we could come around to where we needed to be by driving around in the other, longer, direction. Instead of going clockwise in the loop, we went anti-clockwise.It was only now that we also began to realize that we had come to the park when things were beginning to shut down in general. In fact, the first Visitor Center that we went to at Grant Village, on the shore of the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone, was about to close for the rest of the year. There were also no ranger-led tours for the rest of the year.
We drove by Lewis Lake and Lewis Falls during the early section of the drive within Yellowstone.We got onto the road that ran along the west shore of Lake Yellowstone.During the rest of the drive towards the west entrance of Yellowstone we drove past a our first herd of bison, backlit in the sun that was beginning to set.On our way out of the park, we stopped at the town of West Yellowstone to get some dinner before proceeding towards Island Park and our place for the night. We ate at what was rated to be the best restaurant in town. It was called the Wild West Pizzeria and Saloon. The place was busy and the pizza was good. The massive saloon area next to the restaurant seating had a native feel. I might have felt a little uncomfortable hanging out in that section of the establishment.
The town of West Yellowstone itself had its own unique feel. It is a small place and does not have the more modern and very touristy feel of a place like Jackson. From the nature of the buildings and the signs, I imagined being in a western town in a different place and time, perhaps in the movies. Things shut down for the winter. There are no supermarkets. I did not see any chain motels. Even the grocery store had character. The population definitely appeared to to be more homogeneous than I am used to experiencing. We did see a Chinese restaurant, and the some of the service staff at the restaurant that we ate at appeared to be Hispanic.
We had to drive a further distance from West Yellowstone to get to Island Park. We drove from Montana into Idaho during this drive. The road conditions were still a little dicey from snowfall. The local road that we drove onto in Island Park was covered with snow. (I found out later that the Toyota Highlander Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) that I was driving was an All Wheel Drive vehicle. It was a free upgrade from the intermediate size SUV that I had originally booked with the rental company. That was a good thing!) We had good traction and clearance, which was especially important when we got on to the snow-covered and uneven gravel road that led to the log cabin we were staying at.
The cabin was real nice, except that it got very, very, cold that night, and we had issues with the gas fireplace and the heating in the house. The adults slept in the bedroom downstairs, that had its own heating. The kids slept upstairs in the attic.
The next blog in this series here.
The name 30-60-30 was suggested at one point during the later part of this trip. After all, the trip was meant to be a celebration of two 30th birthdays, and one 60th, all taking place in the order noted above. It had been in the works for a while, and it was taking place in spite of fractured elbows that had gotten in the way of another 60th birthday celebration trip. That particular one had gotten cancelled a couple of weeks earlier. This one was a get-together with the kids, and a visit to the National Parks of Yellowstone and the nearby Grand Tetons, after which the two of us were to set off on adventures of our own, extending the trip to visit the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho and then also spend some time in Salt Lake City. During this trip, we were to travel through the states of Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
It has been a few days since we finished the trip. I have been unsure about how to put this one into the record books. Should it be summarized in one blog? Should it be broken up into a day by day, blow by blow, description? How should I use the hundreds of pictures that I took related to this story? What should I emphasize and where will particular pictures fit in? I have decided on a “hybrid” approach. Only time will tell how this will turn out.
Traveling in this part of the country is mostly about the outdoors. Besides the parks that visitors come to see, this part of the country is occupied by large ranches and farms where cultivation of crops and the raising of animals takes place. The properties are huge, and it takes specialized equipment and vehicles to manage the large spaces. Some ranches have animals grazing in them as far as the eye can see – primarily cows and horses. In many places the landscape is dotted with massive irrigation systems that can water significant chunks of farmland in short time. And then there are the open and rugged lands that are more sparsely occupied.
Yellowstone National Park was a pleasant surprise for me. I was expecting the geyser Old Faithful to be the primary attraction, after which I expected to be done with the park, but I found out that the land that this huge park occupies is truly a wonderland. The Yellowstone Caldera is a massive ancient volcano basin where the volcanic activity has brought the heat and fury of the inner earth very close to its surface. The super-hot magma lies close enough to the crust to have a visible impact all over the park. Steam rises into the air everywhere. There are very few places in the world like this.Hot springs,geysers, fumaroles,mud pits, and all other combinations of phenomena that result from steam, hot water and hot mud rising out of the earth result. The throwing up, churning and/or bubbling of the water, or mud, is continuous as the underground forces are released. The air is filled with fumes with different smells. It is an amazing place.
The cold temperatures that we experienced in the park lent an additional beauty to the scene. Then there is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.This is very much a geologically active area. In one location, steam has erupted from the pavement in a parking lot. You are warned everywhere in the park to keep to the boardwalk. The crust is thin. You do not want to fall into a hole that opens up beneath you. Neither would you want to be there when subterranean forces burst out of the ground.
Yellowstone covers a huge area, and it takes a few days to get around to the different locations. So, if you visit, plan to spend enough time, perhaps a few days. It is one of those places well worth having on your bucket list.
The Grand Tetons are a different experience. The massive, rugged, and majestic massif that rises in a straight line up out of the flat plateau dominate the scene. Geologically, the Teton mountains rise along a fault line. Over a period of millions of years, the land on one side of the fault line was uplifted because the land on the two sides of the fault line pushed against each other. This process ended up raising and exposing really old rock in a relatively new mountain range. Imagine the nature of the forces that are powerful enough to actually create majestic mountains! Geology is fascinating.
The experience of the Grand Teton National Park is mainly about its beauty and the outdoor activities that are possible.
In many sections of both the parks the roads ran along, or crossed, mountain rivers and streams. The main rivers that I noted were the Yellowstone River, a tributary of the Missouri, that flowed to the north through the parks, and the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia, that flowed to the south through the parks. There are a few large and very pretty lakes whose bright and clear blue color catches your attention immediately on a sunny day.
We arrived at the parks at a time when the weather was much colder than it usually is at this time of the year. We had to be bundled up in layers to stay warm, and there was snow and ice to be tackled on some of the trails. The kids were instrumental in making sure we could navigate some of the more slippery trails without incident and additional damage to elbows. There was some tricky driving involved on a couple of occasions. Driving up and down the winding mountain road through the Teton Pass in the falling snow on a dark night after a long day of driving from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole was an interesting challenge. Waking up to below zero degrees (Fahrenheit!) temperatures in Island Park in Idaho one morning was a unique experience. We spent two very cold nights in a nice (but somewhat cold) cabin there. Fortunately, it warmed up somewhat – to closer to freezing temperatures – during the day as we drove into the park.
There are many kinds of animals to be seen in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, but we encountered only a few of them, including those in the pictures below.We did spend a lot of time looking for moose, and also hoping that we would not run across bears when we were by ourselves. Only the bears cooperated. A couple of people in the car managed to catch sight of a moose one day, but there was no place to stop for the rest of the folks in the car to get a view. We came back to the same area of the park a few times without success.
The kids left us after our explorations of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. It was quality time that was well spent, and without their assistance we could not have been able to experience all that we did. After their departure, the two of us headed out further west in our rental car.
Our destination was the Sawtooth National Recreation area. Along the way, we stopped at the Craters of the Moon National Monument. This is a really strange place with bizarre landscape. The remains of ancient lava flows and their aftereffects dominate the area, making the place look like it is of another world.Apparently astronauts come here occasionally to train. There are some caves that have formed in this area, and I managed to crawl in and out of one of these and do some exploration (spelunking?!) without hurting myself. The area of the Craters of the Moon is active from a volcanic perspective. The National Park Service site states “The time between eruptive periods in the Craters of the Moon Lava Field averages 2,000 years and it has been more than 2,000 years since the last eruption.”
The drive past this park took us through the area occupied by the Idaho National Laboratory, a place that I had not known about before. Apparently, this is one of the historical centers of nuclear research in the country. It is still active. There are a few nuclear reactors still in the area, and nuclear waste is also stored here. I suppose the location makes sense considering how sparsely populated this part of Idaho is, and how far it is from major population centers.
We spent the night in a small town called Bellevue in the Sun Valley area of Idaho before heading for the Sawtooth Mountains that lay further to the north. As with our drives earlier on in the trip, this one was spectacular. This was in spite of the fact that the weather did not cooperate too much in the early part of the day. We had to drive through intermittent events of rain and snow fall.Just beyond a mountain pass over Galena mountain, we arrived at the headwaters of the Salmon river, also called the “The River of No Return”. We drove onward to the town of Stanley. The place looked like it was out of a Western Movie, but a more modern version. It felt like the major form of transportation in this part of the world was the pickup truck. The popular fashion statement seemed to involve clothing with camouflage design on it. The Salmon river flows past Stanley on its way north along this section of the road.In general, many of the small towns that we drove through in the countryside during this trip could be considered “cute”. The few commercial buildings in town would mostly be centered around the one main traffic intersection on a main road. There could be the town’s only traffic light at the intersection. There was usually a gas station. The towns that were not too far from the tourist areas would have a few restaurants and drinking holes, and perhaps a motel or two, some of them new and modern. I did notice a Buddhist establishment in at least one town. Young people seem to find jobs in some of these places. Perhaps they keep them alive.
The stop at Shoshone Falls in the town of Twin Falls, Idaho, took place the same evening that we visited the Sawtooth Mountains. It happened because of an encounter we had the previous day at the Craters of the Moon. A fellow visitor had shown us pictures she had taken of the place. The waterfalls are impressive. They are also called the Niagara of the West. The waterfalls happened to be on our way back to Salt Lake City. Not many people visit, although we did see the obligatory busload of Chinese tourists.We spent a significant part of the next day on our way back to Salt Lake City at Antelope Island, located on the Great Salt Lake. Antelope Island hosts a popular state park and is reached by driving over a causeway from the mainland.The island is dedicated to outdoor activities. We were limited in what we could do because of the pre-trip injuries. We did a little bit of hiking on the easier trails. In general, these trails were not that well maintained, nor well marked.
We made it to a beach to check out the salinity of the water.You do get a view of Salt Lake City from a distance from certain viewpoints on the island. The Wasatch mountains dominate the background.I was hoping to see more of the local flora and fauna on the island. That did not happen.
The final day was spent visiting the sights in Salt Lake City. The city is small enough that you can cover it on foot. The main attraction is Temple Square, where you can see the outside of the Mormon Temple, and visit their chapel and Tabernacle. They have visitor centers where you can learn more about Mormonism. It is an interesting experience, and there is no pressure. Salt Lake City is the seat of the Mormon religion.We caught a performance on the organ at the Tabernacle. After a visit to the nearby Utah State Capital Building,we headed back to our hotel. Autumn was very much in the air in Salt Lake City.We went to the Saturday evening service at the Cathedral of the Madeline later on in the day, went out for dinner at a sushi restaurant after that, and finally called it a day.
And that was the end of the vacation and the visit to the four northwest states.
We flew back to Maryland the next morning. (That’s Salt Lake City in the background in the picture above!)
The first of a series of blogs with more details of the trip can be read here.
It was on the treadmill a few days ago that I found the quiet time to ponder the Christmas vacation that had just passed. It was a song by Paul McCartney that was playing in the background that seemed to help build up my mood. My siblings and I seem to have a good thing going, and it was was a silly love song that brought emphasis to the way I was feeling.
The three of us arrived in the US in the 1980s as graduate students.Over time, we began to develop our roots in the country. We started having families. We have been meeting each other during Christmas time ever since we got here, starting to do this more regularly in the 1990s. At first, it was not something that was considered particularly important, but it did become a part of our lives, and by the turn of the century, it was already a ongoing tradition. It takes something very significant, some event with higher priority, for us to miss such a gathering these days. And even if one of us cannot be there, the others make it a point to get together. And along the way, over the years, the group that started out as the basic unit of three has grown in its size, with families, extensions of the family, and children – many, many children! And the bond between us has grown stronger as we keep the tradition going.
Those of us who were young at one time have now progressed into middle age, and a smaller subset of us are already well into the process of passing the ownership of the charge into the future on to others – those who have grown into their own. Youngsters have grown up and developed their own personalities, and their sense of being, all the time feeling the love from the extended family. And then there are the younger ones who are still in the process of coming into their own, showing the promise, and that sense of caring. They are following in the track of their older cousins. The future is in their hands.We, the siblings, for some reason or the other, remain an essential element in this slowly expanding group. It is a place we occupy joyfully. And I celebrate every moment of it because I am not sure how long this will continue.
We are not very good at coming to a decision about where we will meet any particular year. Very often, things happen hurriedly at the last minute, but it does happen. People are able to come to a consensus quickly once the process gets going, and further plans for these trips are in the works pretty soon after that. There is really no agenda that any particular person wishes to push hard. So things have been going smoothly thus far. And love is in the air as people once again reconnect, spend time with each other, and renew their bonds. Other than a couple of birthdays, and the Christmas celebration, there is nothing significant planned during these trips these days. But even those few events we celebrate together take on additional significance every year.
Very often, we tend to gather on the seashore. We can go to the beach, or chill out by the pool, or read a book, or play cards, or listen to music, or go for a walk or a run, or take pictures of the sunrise or sunset. We can have time to ourselves, or organically congregate into little groups that wander off for walks and catch-up time. Any time of day is good for some of these activities. It is all mellow! Someone or the other seems to step up to take care of the needs. Cooking dinners is what seems to require the most planning these days, but there may already be a new tradition underway in this regard.
At this time in my life, I am content to push back and watch the action, and the love and fellowship that is shared when we gather in our little corner of the world at the end of the year, where ever that may be. I do not have to worry, and I just am.
It would take a lot for me to miss this one of these events these days.
We were supposed to do the Feaster Five run on Thanksgiving day, but the temperature turned out to be in the teens (in degrees Fahrenheit), and with the wind it felt like -3 degrees F. We ended up staying indoors, not even daring to try out the shortened course that the organizers had set up because of the weather.
But one can stay indoors for only so long. We also had to burn off the calories that were consumed during the Thanksgiving meal. So, we were out the next day. The temperature had risen to a balmy 20 degrees, still well below the freezing temperature. We went to the Weir Hill Reservation.Some of us ran, while the others walked. We did two loops, each slightly less than two and half miles, around the park.We survived!
We were very thankful for all the people who came even if the weather did not cooperate. They survived a very warm and muggy evening.
The food was fresh and tasty, and those who participated in the dancing had a great time. There were conversations going on all over the room. The trivia session grabbed the attention of at least a small number of people in the crowd. The bride and the groom made sure to meet as many of the guests as they could. It was wonderful to see everybody even if one did not get to spend time with folks, lost as I was in the chaos of my mind.