Friday, July 21, 2017


I have my occasional pitfalls of unhappiness (usually tied to being overworked and stressed) but I'm a pretty upbeat and positive person, overall.  So when I get sad, like really sad, I don't handle it well.

In the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I was privileged to attend a five-weeks collegiate program for talented Kentucky students.  The program was interesting, I met many cool people there, and it helped prepare me for going away to college the following year.  However, I was sad pretty much the entire time -- so sad, in fact, that I contemplated suicide while I was there and I struggled to find any joy in the experience.  I vividly remember being immersed in these engulfing waves of terrible emotion and I couldn't find a reasonable way to become less sad.  I didn't tell anyone specifically how I was feeling -- I didn't want to bring anyone else down during a time where they seemed pretty happy -- and I am grateful that a program administrator granted my atypical request to go home for a weekend during the middle of the program so that I could try to emotionally reset.  It was a bad period overall.

In the past 20 years, I have had occasional bouts of what-felt-to-be-but-was-not-actually overwhelming sadness, although their frequency has lessened over time.  (I credit my Mirena IUD for most of my emotional stability these past seven years.)  Most of my sad days have a specific trigger now, which helps to name the situation, understand it, and frame it as a short-term experience.

I was very sad yesterday.  I woke up and learned that one of my former students, someone who was in my first class at MICDS, had unexpectedly passed away.  I remember her kindness and friendship toward others, her determination to do her very best, and, when she was occasionally dissatisfied with those results, her determination to work even harder the next time.  I ran into her five years ago and she had full-scale transitioned into adulthood.  It was lovely to see her and the person she had become.  She was good-at-heart and simply way too young to die.

I have lost too many students these past 17 years and it breaks me every time.

I want to curl into myself for the foreseeable future, grieve, and ignore the outside world, but I know that pathway leads to even more sadness.  So I will do the actions of someone feeling normal -- go to meetings, interact with family and friends -- and wait to become happy again.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Epic National Parks Adventure: South Dakota Pictures and Stories

At this point in our journey, I had repacked and rearranged the van's trunk SO MANY TIMES that I was confident that I have the best arrangement.  It only took 1.5 weeks and 8 tries, right?  I'm ready for the next trip for sure.

On our last morning in Glacier, we packed up and got on the road.  We were driving east through Montana and and planning to stop somewhere in South Dakota for the night.  More cities with hotels seemed to exist in South Dakota than in Big Sky Country.  Devils Tower was nearby so we detoured over.  It added an extra hour to the trip, but on a 60 hours-in-the-car journey what's an additional hour?!

Devils Tower, WY
We arrived after the Visitor's Center closed so we wrote in the stop in the girls' National Park Passport books.  We'd do the same later in the trip for another location.

Devils Tower is so small that Lola can hold it in her hands!  :)

We planned on stopping at Mt. Rushmore but the long line of cars ..... well, they weren't because of me.  A picture suffices and so we wrote in, rather than stamped, the passport books again.

The plan was to travel to Wind Cave NP and the most efficient route was straight through Custer State Park.  Custer has lots of bison (we were "been there, done that!" dismissive about bison at this point) and twisty-turvy roads.  Additionally there were three single-lane tunnels that made me hyperventilate because they were so dangerous, people stopped their cars in the middle to take pictures, and no one could see if another vehicle was coming the other way.
I did not enjoy my Custer State Park experience, overall.  

Wind Cave NP is one of the earlier national parks created and the first one for a cave.
I'm a Kentucky girl, and I'm telling you that Mammoth Cave is better.  Hands down.

Wind Cave had interesting boxwork features.  It was a "dry cave" so most of our cave knowledge was useless -- no stalagmites or stalactites there.  However, our Park Ranger was fantastic and we really enjoyed his stories of 27 years leading tours into Wind Cave. 
Back on the highway we were immersed in Wall Drug signs.  So, yes, we stopped, shopped, and acquired ice cream.
Requisite Jackalope picture
Then it was time to get to the Badlands, find our campsite, and get situated.  Driving through Badlands National Park at dusk was absolutely stunning.  The sun hits the rocks in different ways and the color array -- red or orange or yellow or brown -- absolutely depended on the sun, rock, and shadow.  
Exhibit A:  morning sunrise
Exhibit B: same formation, 5 minutes later
Badlands is a photographer's dream space.

Badlands at nightfall

Badlands at nightfall

No one was at the Badlands entrance gate to charge us or at the campground entrance gate to charge us, so we were remarkably under-informed about Badlands NP rules.  Were there bears?  Could we hang a clothesline?  What time should we set out in the morning?  Also, folks were clamoring all over the formations with no regard for staying on trail and we absolutely flipped out about it.  Leave No Trace, for goodness' sake, and stay on trail!

As it turns out, you are actively encouraged to climb in any way you please on the formations.  (Even so, we mostly stayed on designated trails because we're conformists.)  No bears in Badlands but the trade-off was lots of heat and wind.  Lots of heat and wind meant hardly any mosquitoes, though, and that seemed a reasonable exchange.

We allocated two nights and one day to the Badlands area.
Night #1:  Arrive at campsite at 8:40 PM.  Set-up camp in record time so that we could attend the Evening Ranger program at 9 PM.  Watch the lightning storm in the distance and wonder whether that storm would reach the campground.  Note to selves: "wow, it's so hot I don't want my sleeping bag!" and "wow, I really, really smell!  Sorry, fellow tent compatriots!" and "wow, this place is really gorgeous."

Day: After another oatmeal breakfast, we rushed over to the Visitors Center which opened at 7 AM (the earliest of them all, for this trip).  The Park Ranger gave us hiking advice -- try these places, get there now while it's not too hot -- and we did exactly as instructed.  The terrain was breathtaking.
Lola is so tiny in comparison.
We hiked three different trails and each one gave views like these.  It was overwhelming.

Stephanie kept comparing the formations to the Grand Canyon. 

On top of the world!

The Badlands was Eric's favorite part of the trip.
With 95+ degree days, no shade, and all the major hikes done by 10 AM, the Whomptons were at a loss of how to spend the remainder of the day.  We did what any reasonable person would have done -- we became Junior Rangers at a ridiculous number of parks.  Badlands, National Grasslands, and Minutemen Missile all had programs AND air conditioning, which was the perfect combination.

Becoming Junior Rangers at Minutemen Missile NHS.
I had never been so depressed when completing a Junior Ranger booklet.  After reading all the displays, I took my booklet back up to the front and apologized for not completing it and then the Ranger cajoled me back into it.  But, really.  It's not uplifting to complete a book about Doomsday events and I didn't enjoy making my own missile decorations.

The Doomsday Clock is now 2.5 minutes to midnight, y'all.  Thank you, climate change and Donald Trump.
Evening/Night #2:  After hanging out at the Badlands Lodge, we made our way back to the campsite to make dinner.  The sun was unbearable and relentless -- we hitched a tarp up to the campsite table area to make some shade -- and then watched as a lightning storm began in the distance again.  The previous night's storm never reached us and, honestly, when you can see miles in any direction it's hard to estimate how far away something is.  When the winds picked up, we packed up all the small items and took down our tarp sun shield; when we heard thunder, we all moved into the van and watched the storm roll in.

Not everyone took the same precautions, so the winds and rain caught many people unawares.  The rain was unimpressive compared to the lightning and wind.  Meals and dishes flew away -- it was funny and scary to watch that happen -- and our tent flattened against the onslaught of wind multiple times.  Thankfully the tent poles did not break.  The storm stayed directly above us for a long time and then the sun came out from one side.

The rainbow appeared to end at this mound.
And we could see the complete 180 degree other end of the rainbow too.  And then the double rainbow!
The wind/rain combination meant that it rained sideways.  If that individual had taken the picture from the passenger side of the car, he would have stayed completely dry.  As it was, he was drenched.  
Then we got these mattamus clouds.  Ruby (our resident cloud expert) was dumbstruck by them.  Apparently they are signals of a tremendously powerful storm to come, not of one that has just passed.  At this point in the storm, if we looked straight ahead or to the right, then we saw rain and rainbows; if we looked above or a little to the left, then we saw these mattamus clouds; if we looked far to the left, we saw the sunset.  
Storm + Sunset
The Badlands look like they are on fire.

Sunset during the storm
After all that excitement, we evaluated the tents' status -- yep, water made its way inside of both -- and noted that the heat was returning.  Krystal, Stephanie, and Samantha went to Ranger Larry's evening program (pictures from all of the National Parks, so cool!) and then everyone went to sleep for our last night in tents.

Sunrise at Badlands
Everything was dry by the next morning, which was remarkable really, so we packed up and headed out.  It was time to head home.  Tina Kearney generously shared her home and hospitality with us in Lincoln, NE, and, the next day, we reached STL.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Epic National Parks Adventure: Glacier Pictures and Stories

Glacier National Park has phenomenal beauty.  While Yellowstone was crowded and felt overrun by people and cars, Glacier rarely felt that way.  All we had to do was pick a trail and walk a bit, and we'd leave masses of people behind.  The Glacier books all suggest that the best way to see Glacier NP is to hike it and, with 700 miles of hiking trails from which to choose, they certainly provide lots of options.  There was no hike that we regretted doing and every one provided a view more gorgeous than the previous.  If you like mountains, waterfalls, lakes, wildflowers, and/or wildlife, then you should get to Glacier National Park.  

Whompton goals for Glacier:
1. See glaciers before they are all gone.  Check!
2. Hike in mountains.  Check!
3. See a pika in the wild.  Nope.  Still a life goal and one that I may never achieve, because climate change is reducing viable pika habitat. I will console myself with Sir David Attenborough videos for the foreseeable future.

Sunset at Western Inn, Columbia Falls, MT.
I snuck out in the middle of the night to stand in the parking lot and stare at the stars.  So many stars.
We drove into Glacier and immediately stopped at the Agpar Visitor Center.  Ranger Leigh was awesome and she recommended hiking to Howe Lake.  The scenery was all wildflowers -- the names of which we didn't know then but excitedly determined later -- like bear grass, rose paintbrush, glacier lily, aster, clematis, columbine -- and ones that seemed similar like wild rose, a hydrangea, a miniature dogwood.  The wildflowers were taller than Lola in some places and often spilled over into the trail.  We did many wildflower hikes and successfully came away with no poison ivy (never saw it in Glacier) and no ticks!

The Whomptons did our one-and-only jump shot of the trip, which resulted in Raina breaking her water bottle.  Sigh.

Our second hike in Glacier centered around Lake McDonald, which is as gorgeous as it comes.  The bright teal color of the water comes from fine dust that has been ground up and deposited by glaciers.  Additionally, the water was remarkably clear, as you can see rocks for multiple meters from the shoreline.

Spending time on the lake was absolutely required, so we kayaked and waterboarded the next afternoon.  In addition to amazing lake and mountain views, we saw bald eagles in their nest and flying around!
Ruby unfortunately sacrificed her GoPro to this lake.  
The mosquitoes were not as bloodthirsty or rampant in Glacier, so we actually spent time at our campsite with skin uncovered.  Fish Creek Campground was well shaded and Ruby spent two nights sleeping in the hammock rather than the tent.  The temperatures were substantially warmer in Glacier than expected -- we anticipated 50's and got 80's -- so sleeping in the hammock was a reasonable option.

Requisite family photo, Johns Lake trail.
Johns Lake is a must-see trail and we concluded the day with it.  Oh my.  Johns Lake itself is nothing spectacular but the trees and the cascades were astonishing.  See below. 

Sacred Dancing Cascades, Johns Lake trail.

Sacred Dancing Cascades, Johns Lake trail.
The trail has McDonald Waterfall too, which was lovely, but the Cascades stole the show.
No joke, parental supervision required.  That water is so tempting, and it rushes fast and incapacitates quickly.  We dipped fingers and skipped rocks and honored the beauty.
Avalanche Lake hike.  This one was so crowded the day before that no parking spots were available so we trekked out really early the next morning to get there.  Watching the sun rise and come through the trees was lovely, and this was our only Glacier hike that really required layers.

Avalanche Lake trail.
I love the perspective of how small we really are in comparison to the world around us.
For being such a popular hike, we saw few people on the way to Avalanche Lake but participated in a large crowd of ~30 people fleeing the lake due to the very large grizzly bear that was walking the trail with us.  Individuals are supposed to keep a 100 meters distance between themselves and a grizzly bear.  A ranger described it this way:  if you stick your arm all the way out and your thumb blocks eyesight of the bear then you're a safe distance away.   We were not a safe distance, as he was probably 5 meters away and still coming.  Oh my, that bear was large and unperturbed by all of us.  Eric TRIED to take a picture of the bear but in his panic got his fingers instead.

Evening Ranger program.  Lola was called up to act like a tree during a fire.  

Good evening, sun!
Sunrise occurred around 5 AM and sunset around 10 PM each day.  It made seeing stars a challenging endeavor, but we managed to stay up for a star-gazing party.  So cool!

Lola and bear grass.

Going-to-the-Sun road views

Going-to-the-Sun road views
Logan Pass is the midpoint of the Going-to-the-Sun road and its roads had, three days prior, been cleared of snow.  The trails themselves, on the other hand, were overrun. The hike we wanted to do at Logan Pass was closed, so we audibled to the Hidden Lake hike, which still involved trekking up a mountain of snow.  The snowy trail continues well past the line of people shown here.  It was a challenging hike, for sure.  

Hidden Lake hike, at the top
requisite family photo
Hidden Lake hike, at the top

Hidden Lake hike, on the top where there was limited snow and great views.
We hung out with mountain goats -- including some baby goats -- and lots of ground squirrels.

Looked for pika.  Didn't find any.  :(

When hiking, we often say that you have to "earn the view," which means that getting to the gorgeous parts should require some hard work.  We earned the views and they were lovely.  Additionally, this hike was exceptionally unique, because we never anticipated hiking in deep snow in July.
I climb steep snowy inclines so that I can sled down them, NOT so that I can gingerly walk back down again.  We took bets about how many people would fall down the mountain on the descent.  Lola tumbled multiple times, Raina only occasionally, everyone else made it unscathed.  Even so, that's not an experience I need or want everyday.  
Beaver Lake trail was near the St. Mary's campsite and seemed an easy wildflower hike for the afternoon.  
St. Mary's Lake

At about this point in the trip, I started wearing everyone down with my ever pressing need to go on more hikes, always more hikes.  That evening saw our last evening hike, which was to St. Mary's and Virginia Falls.
St. Mary's Falls
Virginia Falls

St. Mary's Falls, return trip, at sunset.
We were so tired that we could have sat there the rest of the evening and been happy.
Hikes in Many Glacier were the plan for the next day and, rather than do a series of short 3 - 5 mile hikes, we planned on doing a 10 miler in the morning and then see how we felt for the afternoon.  Iceberg Lake was the chosen hike and it was Stephanie's favorite.  
Views from Iceberg Lake trail

Views from Iceberg Lake trail

Still on Iceberg Lake trail

Animals were on the trail, including a mama grizzly and her baby.  All those people are staring at the bears and probably taking pictures.  Eric took a picture of his fingers again.  :)
We saw a moose on the descent.

Lots of bear grass on this hike
Iceberg Lake!
Apparently it's a thing to jump into the lake, which some lunatics did while we were there.  Generally, though, the brave dipped their toes in and then regretted their decisions because, you know, there were icebergs in the lake.  We enjoyed the view, looked for pika again, saw mountain goats, and scowled at ground squirrels.

Lola caught a small iceberg, so she actually touched an iceberg in Iceberg Lake.  She was super excited about it.
The Iceberg Lake hike destroyed the Whomptons.  We decided to take a break at the Many Glacier Lodge for an hour or so .... and that turned into an entire afternoon of butt-sitting.  I couldn't convince anyone that we should do more, so we headed home for the night.  We were headed to Canada in the morning!
Driving from Glacier NP to Waterton NP, Canada, involves going through some reservations with free-roaming cattle.  We stopped frequently to stare down some cows.
Canada on July 4th!
The Canadian border agent thought I was a little kooky and we're lucky he let us in without too much complaint.  Our first stop was at the Ranger Station, of course, to find out which hike to do.  We chose Bertha Lake, which looked to be pretty, moderate in difficulty, and not-very-buggy.
The Bertha Lake hike was listed as a moderately difficult 10-ish mile hike.  We were confident that we could knock out that distance no problem and we set out with enthusiasm.  You should know that a "moderate Canadian" hike was not the same as a "moderate American" hike.  The Bertha Lake hike was our most strenuous by far; Lola even broke down in tears on the trail.  But we made it up to the top and were rewarded with the exquisite view.
Oh no, that wasn't the last switchback!
Around this point, we started singing every patriotic song in our arsenal -- including the Hamilton soundtrack -- as a way to distract ourselves from the tired muscles.  I effectively dragged Lola up the last half-mile.  

Bertha Lake

Bertha Lake.  Everything about it deserved to be a postcard.
Last Bertha Lake photo, I swear.
On our descent, we encountered many people trying to make it up the mountain and felt pretty terrible when saying "um, the steepness doesn't get better from here, sorry and good luck."  Earn the view!

We enjoyed the descent a lot more than the ascent.  Canadian Rockies, you are so pretty.
Bertha Lake hike.  I thought these plants looked like hydrangeas but the Rangers didn't know what I was talking about when I asked them.
Looking down on Waterton Lake

Another view of the Rockies and Waterton Lake, I believe.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon hanging out at Waterton Lake.  It was gorgeous, the breeze off the lake was chilly, the water itself was downright frigid, and the beach was all rocks.

That didn't stop us from getting in.

Again, the water is so clear that it's hard to tell, but she's standing multiple feet into the lake.
I love this photo so much.  
The last morning at St. Mary's campground, with our wildflower and mountain views.