Friday, 31 August 2012

Day Two in the Tetons

Our second day, or first full day if you want me to be precise, in the Grand Tetons dawned sunny but windy. We had slept well in our cosy log cabin bedroom and wandered sleepily out onto the private veranda to sample the day. I confess I was very slightly disappointed not to see moose grazing the Wildflower Inn’s lovely lawns in the early sunshine, but I guess you can’t have everything.
No Moose on the lawn!
Over a truly wonderful breakfast of fluffy egg soufflĂ©, cheese, bacon, juice and coffee, we discussed what we might do that day. Our original plan had been to spend the morning exploring, and then go for a trail-ride at the Mill Iron Ranch. However, the ranch had called the day before to ask whether we could transfer our ride to the next day, due to booking numbers. We didn’t mind at all, but it did leave us with no real plan for this first full day. On speaking to our fellow guests, however, we learned that they had been on a wildlife watching trip the evening before run by the Teton Science School, a non-profit making organization. They had seen lots of fascinating creatures, including a grizzly bear and her cubs! I was stunned, and we immediately decided to try to book one of these trips for that very day.

We were in luck – they had a couple of places spare. I could barely contain my excitement but had to, as the trip wouldn’t leave until 5.30 pm. So we spent the day looking round the Rockefeller center in the National Park, and had a very pleasant walk up to Phelps Lake. There we met two of our fellow guests from the Wildflower Inn. On the way back, we took plenty of photographs of the lovely native flowers, and also some of the pretty butterflies that flitted around our heads.
Phelps Lake.
Then we drove over to Jenny Lake, intending to do another walk, but the weather had turned showery. Instead, we bought sandwiches and ate them in the car, and then strolled around the parts of the lake that were nearest the parking lot. One of the things that most impressed us about this entire National Parks trip was its value for money. In the UK, you would have to pay for every single parking lot you pulled in to. And many other things besides. Also, the prices of virtually everything inside the park or attraction would be inflated, and your pocket would take a battering. We had expected it to be the same in the US, but we were very pleasantly surprised. For a one-off fee of $25 (hardly a break-the-bank sum) we purchased a pass for the car, regardless of how many occupants it had, which covered both the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, and which lasted for seven days. Provided we kept this in the car and showed it to the ranger each time we wanted to re-enter the Park, that was all we would pay regarding Park fees. It was excellent value. We were also very pleased to discover that the Park’s attractions had not been over-commercialized. Buildings were at a minimum, and most of them blended well into their surroundings. Road construction, too, had been minimalized, and in Yellowstone we learned that there were no more roads now than there had been when it first received National Park status. Good for you, US! Other countries could learn a valuable lesson from the way these National Parks are managed.
Ok – soap-box moment over.
On our way back to the Wildflower Inn to rest and change before our evening outing, we took the road where our fellow Inn guests had reported seeing the grizzly bear mother and cubs the day before. Of course, I knew they wouldn’t still be there – why would they? – but it would be good to see what kind of terrain they favored. You can imagine my surprise and delight when we rounded the corner and saw the huge “bear jam” that had formed along the road – the grizzles were still there! We had heard about bear jams from the proprietors of the Wildflower Inn, apparently they were the best way to find the bigger forms of wildlife, as they were the ones everyone wanted to see. Also, bears can be dangerous animals, and so Park rangers are always in attendance whenever bears are spotted close to roads. They are there to protect the bears from people, as much as people from the bears.

We didn’t get a clear view of the grizzly family, they were concealed among the sage brush, but we were told there was a mother bear and either two or three largish cubs. But it was still a thrill for me – I had never expected I’d ever get to see wild grizzly bears so close up! We finally returned to the Inn full of our news and even more excited to see what we would find with the help of an experienced guide.
Pronghorn deer.

Our guide pitched up just before 5.30, and we bundled into her vehicle. I wish I could remember her name, but I can’t. She was extremely pleasant, quite young, around 21 or so, and was a student at the Teton Science School.  She certainly knew her stuff, and was a mine of interesting information. I was surprised to find that Dave and I were her only clients that evening, but she told us that there were two other Teton Science vehicles out that night, and they were both full, so we got the benefit of her knowledge and commentary – plus hot chocolate! – all to ourselves. She headed out toward the ranger station, and there we discovered that we hadn’t thought to bring our Park pass with us. Naively, we had expected that the cost of the trip would include entry to the Park, but it didn’t. We paid for a second pass, but had it refunded the next day when we showed our original one. (Another thing that probably wouldn’t happen in the UK!)

I will cut what could be a long story short. We had a fantastic trip with our guide and saw bison with young ones (wild this time, not farmed!), beaver, osprey, pronghorn deer, a herd of female elk with young, and two more grizzly bears. These bears, we were told, were adolescents that shouldn’t really be away from their mother. The rangers were keeping an eye on them to check that they were finding enough to eat.

Bull moose.
All this was wonderful, but there was one more special thing that happened. Our guide spotted a big bull moose just on the opposite bank of a river. There was a high patch of ground close by and we pulled off the road to get a good view. Our guide had several pairs of binoculars and we could all stand watching the placidly chewing beast together. Our guide called the other Science School vehicles on the walky-talky they all carried, and soon they arrived to share our success. Then our guide noticed a second moose, further away across another bend in the river. This, she thought, was a female. We could just see her through a gap in the trees. But while Dave and our guide turned their attention back to the big male, I continued watching the female. Suddenly, seen only by me, a glorious Bald Eagle flew in front of the female moose and landed by the river. This creature was high on my wish-list of things to see, and I was thrilled. But by the time I’d let the others know, the wretched bird had disappeared. How annoying! Even more annoying was the joky way my husband looked at me, as if to say “You saw a Bald Eagle? Yeah – of course you did!”
But I was finally vindicated when Dave, trying for a better view of the female moose, shifted his stance slightly. A different view of the river opened up and there, sititng proudly on a dead tree, was my handsome Bald Eagle! And this time, the contents of both full tour buses saw it. It even flew across our field of vision a few minutes later, giving everyone a fine view. What a fantastic end to a wonderful evening’s wildlife watching!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

From Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole, Wy.

Ready to leave the Hilton Garden Inn, Salt Lake City.
When I woke up the day after Rhemalda’s ‘Got Stories?’ conference, I could hardly believe it had happened at all. It had been such an intense day, with such strong and wonderful feelings, that it would surely take a while to sink in. With this in mind, we enjoyed a slow morning, taking our time over showers and breakfast. Once we had eaten our fill and completed our packing, we collected the Jeep and drove it round to the nearest gas station. Here we washed the screen clear of dead insects and bought some water for the journey and a couple of road maps. It was also here that I swear I saw Simon Reeve, the TV presenter who had recently been on BBC 2 in the UK with his ‘Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve’ programme. Dave didn’t believe me, but I’m sure it was him driving away from the gas station!
Celebrity sighting or not, we followed this car out of the gas station and on to the interstate between Salt Lake and our destination for the night, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was easy driving and after a short while, I took over the wheel. It was nice because there was lots to look at, and even though I was driving, the road was so straight and the traffic so light that I could see the sights along the way. At one point we saw some large white birds flying in the distance, and neither of us could quite make out what they were. When we got a bit closer we were amazed to see that they were pelicans! For some reason, neither of us had expected to see pelicans wheeling in the skies close to Salt Lake City. A bit further along we began to see an unusual cloud formation approaching. There were a dozen or so flat, elliptical clouds looking as though they were balanced on top of each other. Dave took a photo of them but it didn’t really do the phenomenon justice.

Odd, elliptical clouds.
As it was nearing lunchtime, we started looking for somewhere to get a snack to stay the hunger pangs. We had seen signs for Idaho Falls and thought it sounded pretty, so that was where we aimed. I still don’t know how it happened but somehow I managed to turn off the Interstate, and we found ourselves driving through an industrial and pretty boring area which had no food outlets at all. Eventually we managed to find something approximating a town and stopped at the only place offering food that we could see. It turned out to be a very nice diner, with the added attraction of a beautifully carved wooden seat outside, featuring two horses’ heads. As horses are dear to my heart and these two were gorgeous, I simply had to take a picture. I’d love a bench like this in my garden!
Beautiful horse-head seat.
It was Fathers’ Day, and so the diner was pretty full and buzzing, but we got two very tasty sandwiches (and resisted all the delicious desserts!) before continuing our drive to Jackson Hole.
The day had been sunny and warm, but as we drove over the Teton Pass, clouds appeared in the sky. It was quite cold at the apex of the pass, and we got out of the car to feast our eyes on the view unfolding before us. We could see the valley stretching out and the mountains in the distance – quite stunning!

As we carried on over the pass and finally entered the valley of Jackson Hole, we came across the first real ‘wildlife’ (pelicans excepted) we’d seen – it was our first sighting of real, live, American Bison! Admittedly, they were enclosed by a wire fence, and I was quite surprised by this. I had thought that all the wildlife would be roaming free, but they had calves with them and were quite near the road, so we simply had to photograph them. After all, I thought, we might not get the opportunity to see any more. Had I realised what was to come, and that these animals weren't wild but were being farmed, I might not have been so excited, but still, this was my first sighting of real buffalo, and I was thrilled.
My first American Bison!
Shortly after this, we arrived at our destination – the Wildflower Inn, Jackson Hole.

I can thoroughly recommend this beautifully built and well appointed log cabin guesthouse. Our hosts Ken and Sherrie welcomed us, and allowed us to settle in to our room. I say room but it was really a small suite, with a comfortable sitting room, a wonderful bedroom and en suite bathroom, plus a private veranda complete with chairs. Lemonade and homemade raspberry pastries helped us feel at home. After chatting with Ken and Sherrie about our plans for our three-night stay, and looking at wonderful photographs of moose that they’d taken as the animals ate the grass on their guesthouse lawn, we took their recommendation and strolled fifteen minutes down the road to a very nice Italian restaurant. All the way we were scolded by pairs of nesting blackbirds; each pair, it seemed, having claimed the space between one electricity pole and the next. It was quite amusing to leave one angrily chattering pair behind, only to have the noise taken up by the pair in front! We also saw our first moose, even if it was only the black, lifesize cutouts that they place next to the road to persuade speeding motorists to slow down. I know they had a serious purpose, and that many moose are sadly killed each year by careless drivers, but I loved them – they even had reflective red eyes!
Encounter with a Moose
Then it was back to our lovely guesthouse for the night, ready to start our Jackson Hole and Yellowstone adventures in the morning!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

CD-O ... Conference Day Has Arrived!

The day after our speedboat trip around Lake Travis, we bade a fond farewell to all our lovely friends and drove the 3 hours or so back to Houston in order to catch our flight to Salt Lake City. I felt rested and relaxed, and quite happy that I had done everything I could to prepare for my talk at the ‘Got Stories?’ reading and writing conference. The flight went well, although it was a little bumpy, and the air was clear, so we had a superb view of the mountains as we approached our destination. Dave and I had been to Salt Lake once before, a few years ago, when I accompanied him on a business trip. That time, we had visited Yosemite National Park, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, The Grand Canyon and Death Valley, also taking in the Hoover Dam and (briefly) Las Vegas. That had been the trip of a lifetime, but I had a feeling this one would be better.

The Jeep Wrangler, and my handsome driver!

On landing, we picked up our hire car, a white Jeep Wrangler. As we drove out of the airport, we were pleased to learn that we remembered the way into the city. It was admittedly pretty close, but it’s still easy to miss your way if you’re not paying attention. I think we must have passed the hotel we stayed in last time as we navigated our way to the Hilton Garden Inn. We checked in, and also checked that they had our additional room reservation for eleven days time, when we would be returning after our Yellowstone visit. All was well, and we settled into our room, where I called Emmaline to let her know we had arrived.
Around half an hour later, Emmaline called to say she and Rhett were in the hotel lobby. I couldn’t get down there quick enough to meet them, I was so excited. As I turned the corner and saw them waiting for me, I got the lovely feeling that I wasn’t meeting them in person for the first time, but instead greeting close, familiar friends. As we hugged, and I introduced them to Dave, I didn’t have time to wonder why this should be. We had only ever spoken by phone or on Skype, and although you can get to know someone a little this way, nothing beats meeting them in person. I had expected some nervousness on my part, some feelings of awkwardness, but nothing could have been farther from the truth. I felt like I had known them for years, and they seemed to feel the same. It was such a lovely surprise.
We spent quite some time discussing my books, the way our future relationship might go, the next day’s conference, and the publishing world in general. Dave was a star and asked all the technical questions I had asked him to. He has run his own business for years and has a much better business brain than I do. I could probably have asked the questions, but I doubt I’d have understood – or remembered! – the answers. Rhett and Emmaline were very happy to discuss Rhemalda Publishing and its goals, and it was all very relaxed. We ended our discussions around 9 pm, by which time Dave and I were starving! So we found ourselves an Italian restaurant and ordered some delicious pasta.
I slept well that night, which surprised me, and woke with a feeling of excitement and readiness. After breakfast, Dave and I took my posters, fliers, bookmarks and business cards, plus the notes and slides for my talk, into the conference room. Rhett and Emmaline were already there, along with their two sons, whom I had met the day before. Aldrich and Darcey helped me decorate my table with my posters and fliers, and Emmaline gave me one of the beautiful displays of flowers she had organized for each table. The room looked lovely!
My table at the conference.
And then my fellow authors began to arrive – I won't list them, you know their names. As I met each one in person, that feeling of having known these lovely people already just kept growing. Yes, we often refer to ourselves as the Rhemalda “family”, and that’s exactly what it felt like. It was exciting to have this feeling strengthened by being able to hug each person and speak face to face. The conference guests also began arriving, and soon it was time to start. Originally, I had been told I would be the third person to speak, but because Rhett decided to speak last, instead of first, my talk moved to second place. Good – less time to be nervous! I sat listening to J.S. Chancellor’s fascinating talk on Character Development, trying not to hear the loud thump of my heart. She took questions when she finished, and after each one my heart raced faster, anticipating my turn. But when it finally came, and Rhett introduced me, my nerves suddenly vanished. I felt like I was speaking to a gathering of friends, and as my slides went through – controlled by my glamorous assistant (Dave!) – and my talk progressed, I found I was enjoying it more and more. I had some great questions afterward, which were fun to answer, and then it was over. I could go and sit in the audience, and listen to the rest of the talks. They were all brilliant, and I was amazed at how well each talk related to the others. Some authors were clearly more used to public speaking than others, but even those who were nervous got their points across and acquitted themselves well. I was so proud to have been a part of it all!

The really fun part was the book signing.
The really fun part was the book signing once all the talks were over. It was a great chance to talk to book fans and aspiring writers alike. I heard and had some fascinating discussions concerning writing, and met some extremely lovely people. And even then the fun wasn’t over, as Rhett and Emmaline took us all, including our partners, out for supper at a sushi restaurant. It was just the best way to wind down and celebrate such a successful conference, and the shrimp-throwing was a hoot! Needless to say, I failed to catch mine, unless you count it hitting me in the eye!!
I think none of us wanted the day to end, but eventually it did. Dave and I took our leave, feeling we had made some lifelong friends. The sadness of having to leave them was only tempered by the anticipation of a vacation in The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. But more of that in my next post.
The 'Got Stories?' Rhemalda Family.
(many thanks to Michelle Davidson Argyle for the photo).