Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bad Vibes at Yellowstone

©2013 text and photos by LeeZard
Wednesday-Friday, July 17-19, Butte, MT-Yellowstone National Park-Rawlins, WY
My spirits are high as I drive out of Butte, MT. I love driving through this beautiful state, Big Sky Country indeed. I am excited to see Yellowstone National Park. Established in 1872, it was the world’s first national park. It’s been on my Bucket List since before there were bucket lists.
I am quickly off I-90 east and onto State Highway 359 south, a two-lane blacktop, speed limit 70 MPH. I love driving through this state.
SR 359 cuts through a valley in the Tobacco Root Mountains. This is cattle country with pastureland as far as the eye can see. Yellowstone Park is on the Montana-Wyoming border and the closer to the park I get, the more beautiful the scenery. Even though I am driving at 5,000-6,000 ft. elevation, the mountains are still breathtaking.
I pull into Yellowstone National Park at about 3:00 PM (MDT) and immediately see my first “Bison Crossing” sign. I love it. I use my Gold Pass to enter the park and look forward to setting up camp and exploring, only to find my campground is about 47 miles away. The good news, Old Faithful is on the way. The bad news, traffic, traffic jams and a car crash. Am I back in Seattle?
For a while, it feels like Seattle as I turn my engine off (waiting in a ferry line?) while the accident is cleared. Thirty minutes later I am on my way. The speed limit throughout the park is 45 MPH, 35 around campgrounds and popular scenic sites, of which there are many. Scenery-wise, the park more than lives up to its reputation but I have a bad vibe about the traffic and huge crowds of people. I’ve heard Yellowstone is jammed during the summer; I had no idea. I’m feeling some bad vibes; I foolishly pictured Yellowstone’s vast wilderness swallowing up the crowds. Hell, the park is 3,472 square miles (Link to Yellowstone Fact Sheet).
It takes me another 45-minutes to reach Old Faithful but the drive is exceptional. All the geysers, big and small, and related steaming fumaroles, are in one section of the park. Cars and RVs peel off one by one to view the lesser geysers but I remain faithful to Old Faithful. The smell of sulphur is in the air.
The parking lots around the world’s most famous geyser are ginormous and packed but I am a patient man with good parking karma. Many geyser gawkers look for space in the first lot they see; I am more optimistic and follow the walking throngs closer to the main attraction where, of course, there are more parking lots. Sure enough, two rows away from the information center a van is pulling out of my spot.
And here I must rat myself out, shamelessly unrepentant. Faithful canine road companion Trooper has one bad habit; he doesn’t play well with other canines, at least not at first. His first instinct is alpha dog and he’ll bark, growl and charge. The last time he did this, he slipped out of his collar and took off after a Pit Bull. Since then he’s worn an escape proof harness in which he can’t hurt himself if he charges. The harness is bright yellow. Can you see where this is going?
Many people stop me and ask if Trooper is a service dog. Until today, the answer was always, “no.” It is 97 degrees here and I will not leave him in the car to die. The National Parks are very strict about where dogs can and cannot go and I adhere strictly to the rules in the wild areas. In the visitor center and at the viewing area for the geyser, Trooper helps me WITH MY HEARING. The park rangers are gracious and sympathetic. Trooper is happy as can be and walks calmly at heel with a big grin knowing he’s in on the conspiracy.
Old Faithful is really Old Mostly Faithful. Trooper and I arrive just as the geyser is finishing an eruption. A sign in the visitor’s center tells us the next blow will occur in 90-minutes, give or take ten! I decide not to wait and proceed to my campsite, for which I made a reservation two days earlier. Good thing, too, everything is filled and I took what I could get.
Before arriving at the campground I noticed a gaggle of cars and RVs pulled off to the side, occupants out with cameras. This big guy to the right was the center of attention.
Another hour’s drive showed me what I got was what I now call the Yellowstone Park Ghetto. I register but before heading to campsite #497, I take a few snapshots of the “official greeter (left).” I’m sure the Park Service pays him either $10 an hour or a certain ration of whatever for the gig.
Lucky me; I get to set up my small domed tent with 499 neighbors, my nearest one only 20 or so feet away. The man of the van creeps me out. He sits staring blankly at the non-fired fire pit for much of the time. My bad vibes are vibrating louder.
I set up my tent amidst kids on bikes and skateboards, screaming kids and screaming babies. This is not what I signed up for (I know, ending with a preposition). I look at Trooper, “Ya know buddy, we may leave sooner than later. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.”
Tomorrow only brought more bad vibes, some of it my own stupid fault. For a few bucks you can buy a shower at Yellowstone. Let’s just say Trooper was ready to throw me out of the car so I paid the price and another two bucks for a sandpaper towel. The private shower stalls form a row along the wall and I found an empty one. After a week on the road camping in the boonies, I must admit it was heavenly.
After drying and dressing I left the stall and walked around the corner to the sinks to shave, etc. After a few minutes I realized I’d left my watch in the shower stall. I returned to retrieve it – gone. I’d been out of the stall for less than five minutes. Yes, it was my bad to leave it there, still; perhaps I’m too much of an FP (Fucking Pollyanna per the ex-mother-in-law) and I thought someone would turn it in. Gone.
Grumbling to myself about my stupidity, I headed to the parking lot and the 17-mile drive to Old Mostly Faithful. While I was in the shower house, someone apparently tried to break into the locked cargo box on the Jeep’s roof. There are two big hinges, one in the front and one in rear of the box so it pops open on the passenger side.
Rather than try to break the two cheap locks, our criminal attempted to pry under the rear of the box and separate the hinge. He – and I assume it was a he – was unsuccessful but the box was bent so far in that it was no longer sealed. This could be a trip-ender; no seal and the box would take in water when it rained. There’s no way I could fit all my stuff in the Jeep’s cabin. Fortunately, I was able to force the hinge back into position. The box remains bent but it is sealed-dodged that bullet. That was it for Yellowstone and me. It is a beautiful place, if everyone would just go home. I’d been in the park for 20-hours. I was done.
I was so pissed off I even considered blowing off the big geyser but how would I explain to my two mostly faithful readers that I was in Yellowstone and didn’t see the big guy blow. So back I went to Old Mostly Faithful, got the obligatory pix and headed for the south exit, 34-miles away, and into Grand Teton National Park on my way to family and friends in the Denver-area.
Teton Park is different; not as much traffic and much different terrain as I continued on the main highway south. Off to the west, the Grand Teton Mountains are simply spectacular.
I did pass a few gas stations and considered stopping. Once the gas gauge gets below the so-called halfway mark, it drops like a rock. It was dropping. Gas in the park is $4.59/9. YOIKS. I did the math. I could make it to the next town, barely. I paid 3.54/9 for almost the tank’s full 20-gallons.
The drive south through Wyoming is uneventful. It is mostly wide-open spaces, cattle ranches and open range. I want to make it to Rawlins, just north of the Colorado state line, spend the night, do some interviews and head for Mile High Country.
I was beat when I pulled into Rawlins and, gasp, no Starbucks. I guess Howard Schultz figures a town with a little more than 9,000 people isn’t worth it. Even worse, the closest National Forest camping was another hour to the east. No way.
There is a Kampground of America (KOA) in Rawlins. KOA is the Holiday Inn of camping with small cabins, RV and tent spots. Showers and all other facilities are part of the fee. Camping snob that I am, I’d never even considered a KOA but I was finished for the day, so hooray for KOA. What a pleasant surprise.
The fee is $23.00, same as a National Forest site. Yes, it is homogenized and squeaky clean but I was home for the night. As a perfect symbol of better vibes, when I opened my tent flap the next morning, a young deer buck was grazing about 20-feet away, his antlers only one point high. I froze, not wanting to spook him and he posed for some shots on the iPhone. I think he is my Petronus. Harry Potter fans will understand.
My nephew near Boulder works for Dun & Bradstreet and we’d already discussed the economic conditions in both Montana and Wyoming, so I knew going in that both states, because of their high dependency on energy production, missed a direct recessional hit.
My one interview, the owner of the only commercial espresso machine in Rawlins, confirmed it. “Between the oil, solar and wind power,” he told me, “the energy companies provide most of the state’s budget. That’s it for Wyoming, ranching and oil. On to Denver.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Butte, MT

©2013 text and photos by LeeZard
Tuesday July 16
I’ve been awakening early every morning – usually 6am – eager to begin each day. This morning, as I open my tent flap, I am in awe; a herd of about 30-40 elk is racing across the field right in front of me. I am transfixed. They move too fast and disappear into the woods before I get my hands on my camera. The image is burned into my memory; they are elegant and awesome.
I must roust myself from nature's glory, however, and get my ass to work. I drive down from my 7,000 foot mountain aerie and head to town.
Butte is a small but proud city. Population in 2012 was 33,720. Its past and present is mining. At one time this was called "The Richest Hill on Earth." 
The city was born in 1864 when prospectors discovered gold in Silver Bow Creek. By 1870 the placer claims petered out and so did the population, dropping from 500 to 150.
The second boom, and the one that cemented the city’s future, came in 1875 when rich silver deposits and then copper were discovered. The famous Anaconda Copper Mining Company opened for business in 1880 and would soon build the world’s largest smelter. Butte was Anaconda’s company town until the company ceased to exist 96-years later. All the underground mines ceased operations in the mid-1970s and more than 3,000 miners lost their jobs.
Old Anaconda Mining Pit
Today one company, Montana Resources, mines copper in Butte, employing about 400 workers to extract and process the mineral from the huge open pit left by Anaconda.  Still, Butte produces more than eight percent of the nation’s copper.
Needless to say, Butte and environs suffered severe environmental damage from the years of mining. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), ARCO, which purchased and closed Anaconda in the 1970s, has spent more than $400 million on reclamation work to repair damage in the area by capping mine tailings with clean dirt, landscaping and re-vegetating damaged land. In 2004 ARCO agreed to contribute an additional $50 million to the Montana Superfund in efforts to clean up the Clark Fork Basin.
Curtis Music Hall - 1892
Historic downtown Butte reflects the city’s heritage with many of the original red brick buildings from the late 19th Century still standing. Many of them are undergoing renovation. Street names like Copper, Gold, Mercury, Silver and Platinum are constant reminders of the past. The former headquarters of the now defunct Iron Savings and Loan Bank is still Butte’s tallest building at ten floors.
But, what would I find post-recession 2013? In fact, it was what I didn’t find that is the surprising story.
Downtown was very quiet this sunny and cool Tuesday morning so I headed into some neighborhoods looking for interviews. My first stop was an Albertson’s Grocery Store. The seven or eight people with whom I spoke all had the same thing to say; the recession had little or no affect on them. “That’s odd,” I thought.
I wanted to see the old Anaconda mining pit and the existing Montana Resources operation. What can I say? The open pit is gargantuan and ugly. Across the four-lane street from the pit is a small, mostly rundown neighborhood of tiny single-family homes and small trailer parks. Prime interview territory was my immediate thought, disgruntled mineworkers. Oh boy! I was wrong.
Hotel/Bawdy House?
I walked the neighborhood for about an hour and spoke to five or six people watering their lawns and tending gardens. None had any connection to the mine and, they told me, neither did their neighbors. More surprising, they all said the recession virtually passed them by. “I was poor before the recession,” one woman told me, “and I’m still poor. The good news is I ain’t much poorer.” Now I was feeling frustrated, “What the hell’s going on here.”
My frustration was short-lived, however, as I quickly realized this was the story. Did the recession really miss this small city? Time to talk to “official” Butte.
The Butte-Silver Bow government is combined for the city and the county. There is an elected executive, no mayor. Executive Matt Vincent was tied up in daylong meetings so I looked for another elected official who might have insight.
Community Development Director Karen Byrnes was kind enough to quickly return my call and even more kind to invite me to her office for an interview. “I am underdressed,” I deferred.
“I would be doing a disservice to a public official to appear in your office in my grubby on-the-road duds, let’s just talk on the phone.”
Owsley Block - 1886
I was about to give Ms Byrnes my standard “Please, no chamber of commerce answers” request but, as I listened to her, I heard the ring of truth in her remarks.
“We were fortunate, the recession did have little affect,” she said. “The early mining booms brought a hearty and diverse group of people here and they stayed. And, their descendants stayed. They are hardworking, industrious and never give up.  As a result, when the Anaconda Mine closed, instead of rolling over and dying in self-pity we went right back to work and began diversifying.”
While mining is still a big piece of Butte’s economic picture, the city now also depends on several other economic drivers, like tourism for example. The many renovation projects in historic downtown is one example of the city's efforts to boost the industry.
Transportation is another factor. Butte is a major inland port from which imported cargo is shipped via rail and motor carrier to points throughout the Midwest. Butte is located at Montana’s only rail interline of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern railroads. Piggyback service is provided, and trains run up to twelve times weekly from here. Several motor freight carriers regularly transport goods through facilities in Butte, with overnight and second-day delivery to major cities in the West and Midwest.
Other major employers like universities, hospitals and the state electric utility (3,000 local employees!) protected Butte during the recession.
So, if you want to live in the Montana mountains with broad strokes of the old west, try Butte where the median house price is $122,000 and unemployment hovers around five percent.
Wait; did I just give a chamber of commerce answer?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Spokane to Butte, MT

©2013 text and photos by LeeZard
Monday July 15
It’s time to leave Spokane. I really enjoyed visiting The Lilac City. I’ve been here before, usually on business, and never really had time to drive around. It is mostly a pretty place; the neighborhoods and homes are well kept but frankly, downtown is butt ugly except for its magnificent Riverfront Park along the Spokane River.
My next destination is Yellowstone National Park and a few days off to enjoy one of our nation’s great treasures. I do hope, with an improving economy, we can stem the deterioration of all our national parks. It is tragic the way they have fallen into disrepair.
Rather than a straight shot to Yellowstone, an eight-hour drive without stops, I will stop tonight in Butte, MT and conduct some interviews there.
I quickly cross the state line into Idaho’s beautiful panhandle. I am driving on I-90 because there aren’t very many other highways heading east in this rugged mountainous part of America. I simply love the view crossing Lake Couer d'Alene , a 25-mile long jewel that is a vast recreational playground.
The panhandle is separated from the rest of Idaho by a string of east-west mountains and, because of the mountains the small towns and cities along my route hug the freeway without spreading too far in either direction.
After entering Montana, about 70 miles east of Spokane I see a thick white column of smoke rising from a hillside ahead. At first it looks like a big puffy white cloud but everywhere else there is clear blue sky. I know it is a wildfire. Sure enough, as I pull of I-90 at Mullan, MT the hillside across the freeway is peppered with rising smoke columns and haze. Fire units are gassing up at the truck stop. A water tank whirlybird flies overhead. Suddenly, the white smoke turns a murky brown, sign of a flare up and/or a new extension of the blaze.
“Some yayhoo decided to burn a pile of plywood in his backyard,” says the woman standing next to me. “It started last night and quickly spread out of control. He ought to know better; this is the no burn season.” I watched the action for a while longer before continuing on to Butte.
It’s pronounced “Beaut,” not Butt. It’s not boo TAY, nor is it butt TEE. This is apparently a problem. The barista at Butte’s only Starbucks explained with resignation, “Most out of towners who stop here call it Butt. When I call the company help line the IT people always pause before pronouncing it, like they’re not sure.” 
I’m just grateful there’s a Starbucks here no matter how you pronounce it. Yes, I’m spending a lot of time at Starbucks along the way. Yes, I’m addicted but Howard Schultz’s free WiFi is also a major attraction.
One of the smartest things I did before leaving Seattle was purchasing a $10 U.S. National Parks LIFETIME senior pass. For those ten bucks I have admittance to ANY federal property charging admission. I’m using Howard’s network now to find a national forest campsite near Butte.
Sunset at Lowlands Campground
An hour later I am setting up at the Lowlands Campground in Deerlodge National Forest ten miles north of Butte. It is a misnomer; this is anything but the lowlands. Butte’s elevation is about 5,500 feet. Driving here I crossed the continental divide at about 6,200 feet and continued uphill all the way to the campground. I am certainly above 7,000 feet – down sleeping bag tonight for sure.

Pre-dawn view from my "front door"

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Spokane, WA

©2013 by LeeZard
Saturday July 13
My faithful canine companion Trooper and I are tenting about seven miles from downtown Spokane at Riverfront State Park’s equestrian campground. The sites have small corrals for folks traveling with their equine companions, although the campsite is open to all. I decide to start my Spokane experience by interviewing my camping neighbors.
Looking at their campsite across the small dirt road from me, Spokane residents Jason, 39-years old, and Susan, 52, look to be doing fine. There is a shiny red late model Ram truck with a bed camper and a trailer for three corralled horses (theirs and one for their nine year old granddaughter). Looks can be deceiving; everything was purchased pre-recession when Jason had full employment as a welder. Susan still works from the home as a medical billing clerk.
“It’s affected me a lot,” says Susan. “I make fairly good money but everything has gone up, especially fuel and food. Buying clothes is a necessity and that’s outrageously expensive especially now that we’ve taken in our granddaughter. I feel like what I make is a lot less than what is reality. Now, it’s hard to make ends meet; we are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s very hard to put anything into savings. It’s a lot of stress, a lot of stress that wasn’t there before. I never had to worry about a dollar.”
“What really hurts,” she continues, “is that we can’t go out on a date, can’t go out to a movie or dinner. We never had to hesitate to go into a McDonald’s; now even McDonald’s is expensive.”
For Jason, the hit was more direct. “As work dried up my hours got cut,” he says. “Some days I didn’t know if I get there would I still have a job? Instead of raises, I got pay cuts. The stress was incredible. If it wasn’t for my wife’s paycheck we’d really be under water.”
In what would become a statement repeated over and over, medical insurance is killing Jason and Susan. They are paying more than a $1,000 a month and doesn’t include dental or vision coverage. Their beloved camping and horseback riding trips have also suffered.
“We used to go further north all the time,” says Jason. Now we have to save two months ahead to come here, just a 15-minute drive. It’s changed me. I like to do things, get up and go. Now I just feel older.”
Spokane is Eastern Washington’s biggest city and the state’s second largest with 209,525 people in 2012. It’s grown since the 2010 census when the population was just over 198,000.
In the grand scheme of things it is by no means a BIG city. Spokane's two tallest buildings are 20 floors each. There are many more with less than ten floors and more than a few red brick one and two story buildings from the late 19th Century, a style I dearly love.
Pedestrian traffic is light in downtown Spokane on this pleasantly warm Saturday afternoon. The streets in downtown are wide and free-flowing three-lane affairs unlike the crowded narrow streets in bigger cities.
It is a perfect day to visit Riverfront Park, site of Expo 74, the first environmentally themed World’s Fair. Today it is a crowded 100 acres of beautiful green space and amusements smack dab in the middle of the city along the Spokane River. It is a veritable goldmine for post-recession stories.
Richard and Heather Morgan are 42 and 35 years old respectively. With two kids ages six and two they have a positive story to tell. 
Heather is what I call a domestic engineer; let’s be clear, married women who stay at home still work, many of them also managing the family finances. Richard is a chemist and he says the recession actually helped him.
“I quit my job at the height of the recession and got a new job at a start-up company,” he explains. “We ended up making a lot more money (Note the inclusive ‘we.’ Here is a man who respects his wife as a partner). And, because of the recession we were able to buy a house for a lot less than we normally would’ve paid.”
Richard’s start-up company also benefitted from the recession, using federal economic stimulus grant money for its creation.
On the down side, the Morgan’s 401K took a dive, but not enough to offset the good news of Richard’s higher income. The dive was big enough, according to Heather, “that we’ll have to work an extra five or ten years.”
Positive or negative, the Morgan’s learned some things. “I learned not to listen to the news so much as to how thing are,” says Richard. “I learned not to be scared by what I hear because you have chances to make money in a good or bad economy if you play it right and you are lucky.”
Heather shares Richard’s sunny outlook, “I learned that you have to enjoy life; go out and have fun every day.” My ex-mother-in-law, a very wise woman, would have called them “FPs, Fucking Pollyannas.”
Heather’s optimism, however, is colored by reality. “Groceries have gone from about $400 a month to about $800. It’s a struggle to keep it from going to $900. Insurance is higher; we have to pay about $1,200 a month for medical insurance. Our lifestyle has changed; we don’t go out as much. We don’t go anywhere that uses a lot of gas. I keep a very tight budget now.”
Did the recession change them personally? “Heather says, “For me, I think about money a lot more, I think about it every day.”
The next couple I spoke with has a different view on life and the recession. Bob and Susan Grey are both in their mid-60s. Both are retired – Bob was a software engineer, Susan a paralegal. Bob says he saw the economic handwriting on the wall.
“I knew we couldn’t continue the way we were going (the royal ‘we.’). I saw the recession coming and took protective measures. I had an IRA and learned all I could. I pulled out of the IRA and invested on my own, especially in oil. It’s tripled in price since 1999. We just bought a new house and paid cash for it.”
The crowd at Riverfront Park was an economic microcosm. From the financial security of the Morgan’s and the Greys to the lonely frail-looking man sitting on a grass hill in the shade of a huge oak tree and the swarthy dapper-looking man sunning himself in the plaza – both jobless.
The dapper 46-year old Alex is a New York City transplant who lost his consulting business after the crash. His timing was impeccable. He started out in 2008 by helping new companies document their creation. By 2010 he had no clients.  Now he’s looking for work and living frugally on his savings. He recently moved to Spokane to live with his daughter and grandson.
“The recession changed my life,” he says. “It sucks and I’m depressed.”
Staring into space in the cool shade on his grassy hill, 55-year old William is stricken with a degenerative neurological disorder and cannot work. He barely scrapes by on a steadily diminishing state disability subsidy, hoping he can make it to 65 and Social Security benefits. Down to $190 a month, his state money barely pays for food. William lives wherever he can lay his head at night and has a forlorn, hopeless look in his eyes. 
“You will be in my thoughts and prayers,” I tell him after our conversation. I mouthed the words sincerely, yet they felt so empty.
Finally, there is Balloon Guy, the only name he’ll give. Sporting a red high hat and wearing a bright, many-colored coat he’s sitting on a bench just off the plaza creating balloon animals for kids and inner kids.
He only claims 55-years of life but I’m guessing he’s closer to 70. “I quit school in the third grade,” he says unapologetically. Didn’t see no reason for it.”
He is more than functionally illiterate. “I can’t read or write,” he explains, “and nobody wants to hire someone without any education so this is what I do.”
That was all he’d relate. Balloon Guy did not want to talk about how much he makes, how or where he lives. All he’d say is, “The recession didn’t mean nothin’ to me,” obviously unaware of the double negative.
That is not to say that Balloon Guy is stupid or some kind of idiot, far from it. As soon as I turned off my digital recorder he began reciting a complex, intricate poem about life in the forest. His pace was fast, almost frenetic but the rhythm of the piece and its descriptions were captivating. He was done before I could restart the recorder.
“Wrote that in my head,” he proudly proclaimed. 
I was astounded. Balloon Guy might be more literate than a lot of people I know.