Sunday, September 21, 2008

She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes, when she comes . . .

So, Mary Lou . . .

The highlight of a visit to Many Glacier is the Grinnell Glacier Trail, which starts near the Many Glacier Lodge and winds alongside Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine, up to Grinnell Lake and, if you are fortunate, all the way to the Grinnell Glacier. It's a beautiful trail.


We started hearing from hikers coming back down that they had seen a grizzly on the trail. We heard subsequently that the bear had gone down toward the lake, but could still be seen on the hillside, eating. With this in mind, we continued talking loudly and making noise as we were instructed we must do, even though this goes against everything we've ever learned about preserving the wilderness experience for others. In this picture, Adam has gone ahead of us and is approaching the corner around which he will disappear momentarily. The picture I only wish I had is of him hotfooting it back around the corner a minute later, elbows bent and arms swinging at armpit height like a Saturday morning cartoon, going, "Oh, hell no! I don't think so!" I asked him if he saw the bear, and he said, "Saw it?!?!? I almost ran right into it!" He had turned the corner only to find himself face to face with the griz, which was sitting in the middle of the trail, munching on who knows what. He said he jumped, the bear jumped, and they took off in opposite directions.

I was thinking, damn, I wanted to see the bear, when over the ridge it came. It was moving at a pretty good clip approximately parallel to the trail, and we did as we were also instructed, which was to be quiet and slowly retreat. The bear kept its eyes on us with what I imagined to be an expression of friendly curiosity, and then turned sharply downward, hit the trail and started coming our way, its curiosity now seeming a little too friendly. I was having this little conversation in my head, with one voice wanting to wait until it got closer to get a really good picture, and the other voice reminding me that this is what stupid people do.

So we turned and continued down the trail at a worried pace but not running, which is known to create a predator/prey dynamic that doesn't generally turn out well for the prey. Isabel was in front of me, suddenly more motivated to get moving than she had been all day, and I kept saying, "Don't run, honey; don't run," as calmly as I could. But every time I looked back I saw that damn bear, following us at maybe 40 feet, not charging but definitely matching our pace.

When we turned a corner where it couldn't see us, I said, "Now run! Quietly!" We continued this way, walking when we were visible, trotting along when we weren't, until we were pretty sure the bear was no longer following us.

We passed several small clusters of people on their way up the trail, and warned each of them that there was a grizzly right behind us. They reacted with a mixture of alarm and curiosity, but not even the most unnerved among them actually turned around; they wanted to see the bear too! After a while we figured they were providing plenty of distraction for ole Smokey and we no longer needed to worry.

Here's the griz just coming over the ridge:

Here's the picture I really wanted:

Just kidding! Credit:

Here's our $47 souvenir, purchased later that same day:

Makes a nice trophy, no?

We wanted to try the trail again the next day, but by then it had started raining and blowing and we decided to move on to Rising Sun, where we caught one quick glimpse of the mountain lion frequenting that area, but no more bears . . .

One way not having a car sucks . . .

. . . is agreeing to go with friends on a 3-day group activity about which you have grave doubts, confiming not long after arrival that you will indeed best remember this as 3 days of your life you will never get back, and being stuck 2 hours from home for 3 looooooooooooong days of boredom and hunger because 1) the one and only form of entertainment is getting drunk and acting stupid and 2) the people in charge of meals think a plate of stir fried cabbage = a vegan dinner.
This sucks.
Trust me.

Monday, September 15, 2008

So I never got back to the Glacier story . . .

Because that's so last month. In the future, I will finish writing about a trip as soon as possible after returning home, because eventually I start losing interest and it becomes less pleasure and more work.

So, briefly . . .

There is no regular transportation between the West Glacier Amtrak station and the entrance to the park. Wtf??? All the literature and websites make it sound like Glacier Park, Inc., the commercial shuttle, does this run. But when I called to make reservations, they told me they only run between their own properties. And they really had no suggestions. When I asked, "What do people do?!?" he was all, "Well . . . usually they rent a car." So FYI: if you don't have a car and for any reason cannot hike the 4 miles from the station to the park, it'll cost you $46 for a private transportation company to carry you. And of course, another $46 to get you back.

We found the free park shuttle to be brilliant. Buses ran frequently and we never had a problem with them being full to capacity. (I do understand, though, that it's a different story when the park is packed with visitors. We were there the week before Labor Day and it had apparently cleared out quite a bit.) The shuttle runs the length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which bisects the park from west to east (or east to west . . .) and it stops at all the trailheads and visitor centers. We, of course, always had waaaaay more stuff than the other passengers, but everyone was helpful and never cranky with us. I was surprised how many people drive in, park somewhere, and then take the shuttle to get around the park.

A caveat: If you go without a car, have some extra funds available in case of the unexpected. Although we had 2 gorgeous sunny days, it started raining our second night there and kept it up for the next 3 days. This caused us 2 problems: Logan Pass, where the Sun Road goes over the Continental Divide, was closed through a day and night due to the weather, leaving us stuck on the east side of the park. People who had cars could drive around the park, or explore the surroundings, or just go home, but we didn't have these options. Plus, the borrowed tent (not my tent) was about as waterproof as a fort made of old sheets. (There's a long, funny story there involving efforts to salvage a little dryness via a large number of cheap tube tents and emergency blankets, but I'll not go into that here.) We ended up staying in a motel room our last night there, which was only made possible because the intended guest was stuck on the west side of the park.

Had the pass not re-opened in time, our options would have been to pay dearly for ground transportation all the way around the southern perimeter of the park to West Glacier, or pay slightly less dearly to take ground transportation to East Glacier and pick up the train there. Fortunately, the pass opened and this wasn't necessary.

We wanted to go on a trail ride in Many Glacier, which I bet would have been fantastic, but it was raining and blowing too hard. We ended up going on a ride in Apgar, which I found to be pretty tame. (There's a long, not really very funny story here about how people in Montana are unable to give clear directions to anywhere, and how this complicated our effort to get to the corral on foot, but again, I'll not go into that. Suffice it to say it involved a lot of power walking, sharp words, passive-aggressivity, sweating, the kindness of strangers, a borrowed cell phone and a scooter.)

One of these days, I'll tell you about getting chased by that grizzly . . .

Sunday, September 14, 2008

7 things I've learned in 7 weeks of carlessness

1. I hate driving. I guess I was numb to it before, aware on some level it was causing me stress but for the most part just accepting it as a necessary evil. No longer. (I should qualify that -- I hate urban driving. Winding it out on long stretches of open road might still be fun.)

2. I'm no angel. I'm pretty easy to get along with normally, but when I drive around town I turn into a seething hater. When I drive it's because I have things to do -- I have no earthly idea why other people drive, but I'm pretty sure it's to make my life a living hell. They frustrate me, they confound me -- and dammit, they impede me. It's unforgivable. If they were renting their cars by the hour, they would follow my example of lean motoring efficiency. But no.

3. I love saving money. I'm averaging about $200 per month with Zipcar, and it would be a little less if I would give in and commit to the $250 per month plan, where I would get 15% off the hourly rate for every hour I drive, and any extra would role over for 2 months. I'll get there.

Note this is $200 total -- because insurance and gas are included in the hourly rate. Hurricane, shmurricane. There are no hidden costs with the Zip.

4. Other Zipsters can be annoying. To them I say: Feed the &^*% gas tank! It isn't hard. Pull into the station, hand the attendant the fuel card, and fill'er'up. You know the rule -- less than 1/4 tank remaining means get gas. On two occasions recently I've picked up cars with less than 1/4 tank, and although I get some measure of comfort from calling Zipcar to tattle, I still have to use my precious rental time to take care of the previous user's business. The car I drove yesterday had exactly 1/4 of a tank, so although technically they weren't in the wrong, they knew very well I'd get stuck with the job. Grrrr. Oh, and one more thing: In the Element? Unhook the 'biner and let the seat back down. There -- wasn't that easy?

5. Portland actually is a pretty bike-friendly town. When I moved here in '94 I didn't think so. Bike lanes were rather anemic and they seemed to have been grudgingly allotted only the roughest, most debris-strewn bits of shoulder. But yesterday I needed to get over to Hollywood, and I thought just for fun I'd take the suggested bike route up 41st/42nd. It was awesome. I especially loved the markings on the road and the directional signs. One time long ago I tried to take this route and I ended up all confused and turned around, but this time it was a breeze.

I also decided to check out the route going up and down Interstate, just to see. Overall it was consistent and safe, and I got to chat with a couple of the many other cyclists on the road. And it was much faster than I expected.

6. Motorcyclists are not necessarily our brethren. I was Westbound on Broadway last week, and at a red light I was approaching the green bike box, appreciating that the driver in the right lane knew to stop behind it, when the light changed and the motorcycle behind that car jumped over and cut me off to make a right-hand turn in front of me. Dude. I can only imagine how pissed you'd be if a car did that to you . . .

7. Sometimes not having a car sucks. But those times are brief and require creativity and patience to overcome, and those are not bad qualities to exercise.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Check this out!

I've been blogged . . .

My Year of Living Carlessly at Blogged

I'd better get back to work and start writing. I'm far too much of a grade over-achiever to settle for anything less than a 10.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Ostorozhnah! Dver zakryvatsyah.

Roughly, "Caution! The door is closing."

This is the one phrase I heard more than any other in Moscow. As I stood at the door of the metro train car, trying to look grim and arrogant enough to pass for Russian, I heard it over and over. A friendly, pleasant recorded voice, male on some trains and female on others, announced the closing of the doors prior to departure from each stantsiyah.
Navigating the Moscow metro is surprisingly easy if you know the Russian alphabet and can sound out the station names. It's also easy to just look at the map and count how many stations to your stop, but you still need to be able to read the names.

Although Alexey picked me up from the airport on arrival, he had to go to work the next day and I was on my own until evening. Before he left he gave me a set of keys and showed me how to lock and unlock the four heavy, fairly primitive doors we had to go through to get in and out of his Soviet-era flat. He also gave me a cell phone that had just one number programmed into it -- his. This turned out to be a lifesaver.

That morning I bravely headed down to the Annino station, just down the block from the flat. There is a tiny branch of the Bank of Moscow just outside the station, so I stopped at the ATM to pick up a few rubles. I requested 1000 rubles (about $40USD) but was chagrined to receive a single 1000 ruble note, which I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to use in the ticket machine. I popped into the wee, deserted office and waited patiently for someone to appear. Eventually a clerk did come out, and it didn't take long to establish that we were not going to be communicating verbally. I ended up getting a piece of paper and a pen and writing out " 1000 = 100, 100, 100, 100, 100 . . ." until the little light went on over her head and she disappeared with my note, reappearing a few minutes later with ten 100-ruble notes. I thanked her (the three things you absolutely must be able to say when in Russia, if you never learn another word: "Pazhalustah (please);" "spaseeba (thank you)'" and "yah ne punamayo (I don't understand).") and went happily on my way, flushed with pride at having successfully conducted my first piece of business with a genuine non-English speaking Moscovite.
My confidence quickly ebbed as I made my way down into the station, however. I had naively expected to find a typical American set-up, with automated ticket machines and wall and pocket maps of the metro system. But alas: There were no maps, anywhere, and to my horror there were no ticket machines. Rather, there was a bank of stern, middle-aged Russian women behind thick bullet-proof windows dispensing tickets by hand. I stood there, trying not to let my increasing anxiety and consternation show, thinking that as much as I hated to bother Alexey at work it would be really awesome if he could tell me what to do right now -- when I became aware of a funny feeling behind me, which turned out to be the cell phone vibrating in my backpack. I pulled it out, and lo -- it was Alexey, calling to see how I was managing. I explained my dilemma, and although what I really, really wanted to do was to push the phone under the window and let him tell the scary lady what I wanted, he insisted on giving me instructions. Give her 200 rubles, he said, and hold up 10 fingers. She'll understand you want a pass for 10 trips.
It was clear throughout my trip that I was succeeding with the mask of grim arrogance, because people kept speaking Russian to me in a way that suggested they expected me to understand them. The intimidating lady behind the window certainly did. At this point I was too shy to bring out my "yah ne punamayo" (although by the end of the week I was tossing it out with abandon, using it to extricate myself from every uncomfortable or bewildering situation), so I just shrugged my shoulders and looked stupid. She muttered to herself and shook her head as she shoved my pass and change under the window with disgust. I felt a little embarrassed but I had my pass, so what the hell.

(In my defense, on the language issue: No matter how badly they butcher a word or mangle a phrase, I can always deduce what my Russian friends are trying to say as they struggle for fluency in English. However -- they absolutely insist that if I utter one word in Russian that does not sound exactly as they expect it to, they will have absolutely no idea what I'm trying to say -- none, nope, not a word, not at all. Before I left for Moscow, Artem told me I shouldn't even bother trying to learn any Russian, as I would never be able to communicate with anyone anyway. Definitely not a confidence builder. Toward the end of the week, when I wanted to get a metro pass for five trips, I asked Alexey: "If I give her 100 rubles this time and say p'yot, will she understand what I want?" No, he said, she would certainly not understand. She might, however, understand if I said p'yat, but since I can't say that, I should just hold up five fingers. I looked at him in disbelief. The CDs I studied with clearly said p'yot, for one thing, and for another, how does this differ from when you guys say, for example, nature-all instead of natural? I understand that! How hard can it possibly be? But no.)

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I would have missed it if I'd been driving

Overheard while walking past Gold Door -- tatted, pierced, shaggy-black-haired hipster in skinny jeans and chucks, to similarly attired peers:

"I saved a whole bunch of money by switching to Geico!"