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Our Lewis and Clark Journal – Day 24

September 19, 2013

Day 24: Old Faithful and The Grand Tetons: The Legacy of John Colter    (August 19)

This was a day of pleasant surprises. Our only goal when we woke up was to visit Old Faithful and to begin working our way home. We experienced so much more.

We broke camp early and left Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park, happy to have a day with few expectations and no specified distance to drive by nightfall. We found ourselves inclined to stop at almost every scenic overlook and take the time to enjoy the views.

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Our first drive took us along the beautiful northern shore of Yellowstone Lake. We stopped to see the Natural Bridge, the Painted Pots near West Thumb, and the Kepler Cascades. The steam pots were surreal and sulfury, like a lunar landscape or primordial sea. Every one of our senses was engaged in listening, smelling, watching, and breathing in the nature around us.

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We reached Old Faithful just in time for a Ranger Talk on Bear Safety. It was engagingly presented and pitched perfectly for August (who, after our hike yesterday, was unusually informed about precautions to take around wild animals in the park). The ranger was happy to sign August’s junior ranger workbook.

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After the talk, we took our seat in front of the famous geyser and waited. It was impressive. There were numerous ‘Is this it?” moments as the water would bubble up, or rise for a moment. But when the eruption came it was unmistakable. Apparently we had the best show of the week, with the water rising higher than usual and for longer. We have a nice shaky video that I have yet to learn to embed in a post on WordPress.

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Immediately afterwards August received his Junior Ranger Badge in the nation’s first and oldest national park.   It was clear that August took this particular examination and oath seriously. As he raised his right hand and recited the pledge to “explore, learn and protect,” he was so intense with attention that he swayed and almost fell over backwards. If I hadn’t reached out to gently stop him, he would have stumbled and fallen to the floor. I have video of this as well, which I never grow tired of watching.

Badge and patch in hand, we stopped to get his National Parks Passport stamped, and I bought him a Junior Ranger backpack. I know I have spent a small fortune on outfitting this young ranger, but the love and respect for nature that it represents to him in invaluable. On the way back to our RV he stopped to show me a small mass on the ground. He identified it as an owl pellet. “You see,” he explained, “owls swallow animals whole, but don’t digest the bones. Eventually they spit them back up and they look like this.” He learned this at our local ecology camp, which he attends every summer. We identified the bones as those of a mouse. I was so proud.

We had decided that as we headed home, we must stop along the John D. Rockefeller National Memorial Highway and in Grand Teton National Park in order to stamp August’s passport. We were in no way prepared for how majestic and beautiful the Grand Teton’s are.

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By far, this was Noelle’s favorite stop on our trip, and one to which she would like to return. (There is great rock climbing here, so that is a real possibility). She was driving as we entered the park, and I kept snapping photos as every mile became more and more stunning. And then the tree line disappeared and the length of Jackson Lake came into view and our breath was taken away. Without a word, we stopped the RV and went down to the waterside.

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No picture will do justice to what we experienced. August ran right into the lake. I shed my shoes and walked barefoot in the mud and up to my knees in the water. Noelle simply enjoyed the peace. Before we were done,  August was wet from head to toe, having covered himself with mud and eventually just lay down in the water. And why not! I appreciated anew how our experience of nature and wild places must be tactile and physical – we must become a part of it – and how “a little child shall lead us.” I wiggled my toes in the mud.

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Thankfully, our RV has an exterior shower. I tried to imagine what cars saw or thought as they whizzed by a naked mud-covered boy washing himself just a few feet off the road.

Late afternoon found us at Colter Bay. We have been reading about the legend of John Colter all through Yellowstone. We know Colter because he was an important member of the Corps of Discovery, and  journeyed with William Clark and Sacagawea on the return trip down the Yellowstone River. We spent time learning more about him six days ago at Pompey’s Pillar, on the Yellowstone River.

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All day we have seen advertised throughout the parks that Ken Thomasma is going to offer a talk this evening at the Colter Bay Visitor’s Center on The Real Story of Sacagawea, and have decided that we will not miss this. We took a dry campsite inside Colter Bay and settled in. As it turned out, a combination of timing, hunger, mood, meltdown and exhaustion conspired to keep us from attending the lecture together. At the time of talk, Noelle and August would eat dinner and take a walk while I went to hear Ken.

It seemed a good decision at the time. And it was necessary.

But it remains one of my biggest disappointments of our trip. Ken was amazing.

Ken is the author of numerous books in the Amazing Indian Children Series, and he is a gifted storyteller. I was riveted for two hours as he recounted in fascinating and suspenseful detail the entire story of Lewis and Clark, noting at every point not only how essential Sacagawea was to the expedition, but how impressive she was (and is) as a young woman. It was the perfect summa to our trip, and I regret we did not experience it together.

Throughout the talk, I know Ken noticed my engagement with every turn in the story (because he told me so later), but mostly I was recollecting all the observations and personal engagements with the story that August and Noelle and I had made over the last nine months and throughout these last three weeks. This has been the trip of a lifetime.

After the talk, Ken signed a book about Sacagawea for “August Xavier and his Mom and Dad who have travelled in her footsteps” and gave me a Sacagawea gold dollar. Ken is almost single handedly responsible for the existence of this coin, and jokes that he knows who is stockpiling them: the tooth fairy. I shared with Ken that our son receives a silver or gold dollar for every lost tooth, and that the coin he gave me will be the next coin found under August’s pillow. I enjoyed shaking Ken’s hand.

At this point, my Lewis and Clark adventure was complete. We still have a long trip home, but at this point I packed up the guide books and the journals. From here on out, we will travel through the country Lewis and Clark made possible.

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Recommended Reading: Ken Thomasma, The Truth about Sacagawea. Agnes Vincen Talbot, illustrator. (1997). This is the book that convinced the Mint and Congress to produce the Sacagawea Gold Dollar in order to replace the Susan B. Anthony. If you think the reactions to Nina Davuluri winning the Miss America contest (the first Indian-American to do so) were appalling, you can imagine some of the early reaction (in congress) to this 15 year old native american mother being honored as the single most important American woman to honor with a coin. As she received absolutely nothing from the U.S. government for her essential contributions to the Corps success, this seems a bit of belated justice.

The INDEX of blogs from Our Lewis and Clark Journey can be found here.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2013 8:25 am

    Thank you for the referral to Ken Thomasma’s books. Shameful irony that that national parks and historic sites are being short-changed under the sequester at the same time that the junior ranger programs are doing so much good.

  2. September 19, 2013 10:06 am

    Check out Joseph Bruchac also: http://josephbruchac.com/

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