Thursday, October 27, 2011

Yellowstone Wildlife

The first stop we made after entering the park was to observe a herd of elk grazing along the roadside. This was only the beginning of a wealth of wildlife we had the privilege of seeing. The stag kept watch over his harem and their young in the golden meadow. On the opposite side of the road, extremely close to us, was a member of the harem and her baby. We quickly learned to keep a lookout for cars stopped along the road. This usually meant an animal sighting. We had gone only a short distance further before a line of cars alerted us to a large herd of bison across a river. We traded photos with a young couple who had also stopped to observe the bison. Although they currently live in Manhattan the husband told us, with a nod to the herd, that he was originally from Buffalo Grove, a suburb of Chicago. They mentioned how they had expected to be disappointed due to the road closures but so far were pleasantly surprised.

Further down the road, on a short hike to the first of the geysers we were to see, a single bison wandered between the trees no more than 40 feet from us. As we were returning to the car, congratulating ourselves on such a close encounter, we saw another bison standing in the center of the parking lot 5 feet from our car seemingly posing for the awestruck tourists and their cameras.

Ducks and geese were omnipresent in the river and wetlands.

The first encounter with bison was by no means the last. At one point, 2 came trotting down the road, followed by 3 others moving at a more leisurely pace. A traffic jam was caused by a mother and her calf standing in the middle of the road. Obviously, this bison mom, unlike my human one, did not give her child the lecture about playing in traffic. Or perhaps the young bison was particularly headstrong and refused to listen.

We spotted two juvenile male elks pushed out of the herd by the stag searching for females to start their own herd. After a time, elk and bison sightings became almost routine.

Wolf sightings were more rare. The first we saw moving through a field. The second we watched for some time hunting and catching small prey in a meadow. The third crossed the road just ahead of our car.

Driving down another road we watched a herd of deer ford a river and climb up the opposite bank.

Noticing a car pulling into a scenic turnout lead to our most exciting and memorable animal sighting. In a field we spotted a grizzly bear, which is very rare. As we watched, a bison ambled by seemingly wondering what all these people were so excited about. Then a man, who bore an almost uncanny resemblance to a young George Clooney, his large,  muscular arms filling out the sleeves of his black tee shirt, pointed out a small herd of deer crossing the far edge of the field. We marveled at our good fortune in seeing 3 different types of animals, including the elusive grizzly, in this one field.

Yellowstone - We Came All This Way and We Can't Get In

The snow continued through the night. We attempted to enter the park at 8:00 a.m. the next morning only to be informed that it was closed due to hazardous driving conditions. We were told to try back in an hour and a half. We killed time, along with several other tourists , in the one store that was open at that hour, the log cabin Western Store/Service Station. When we returned to the park we were told that only one 30 mile stretch was open from the western entrance, where we were, to Old Faithful. We paid the entrance fee and made our way into the park. People told us later how lucky we were to see the park covered in snow by car as the roads close in early November before most big storms arrive. Due to the amazing, sometimes otherworldly nature of the features of Yellowstone, traveling those 30 miles took us over 2 hours.

Eventually we arrive at the historic Old Faithful Inn with it's beautiful, soaring, almost cathedral like log walled lobby and the iconic geyser located just outside it's doors. Old Faithful and the other sights we saw over the 3 days of our visit were some of the most remarkable I have ever had the pleasure and good fortune to experience.

Yellowstone, Jackson, Wyoming and The Grand Tetons

I had been sick with a flu for several days prior to our trip. The day before, sick enough to leave work early, which I rarely do. So, I was somewhat vague as we woke early to get to the airport. After applying a liberal coating of Mormon repellent we boarded our flight to Salt Lake City.

My partner had airline miles that were about to expire. We had also, over the years, built up a number of miles on an AA Advantage card that we had never used. The flight and rental car were paid for with these. All we would have to pay for was lodging and food, plus incidentals. One of the incidentals was taxes and insurance on the car. At the rental car counter sticker shock set in when I realized how much a car upgrade, taxes and insurance amounted to. Collecting myself, we collected the car and set out for Yellowstone National Park.

Salt Lake City, dominated by the state capitol building set high on a hillside and the famous Mormon Temple, would be a beautiful setting were the view of the spectacular snow dusted mountains not marred by strip malls and some rather ordinary, verging on tacky, housing stock. It was cold and snow flurries drifted down as we traveled.

To get to Yellowstone we had to go through Idaho. Midway through the state the flurries turned to steady snow and finally a storm with fat wet snowflakes the size of Idaho's legendary potatoes making the roads hazardous, adding to our estimated driving time.

Prior to arriving at Yellowstone you pass through the Targhee National Forest. By this time the lodge pole pines that make up the forest sported a thick coating of snow giving the surroundings the breathtaking beauty of a winter wonderland. We arrived at the small town of West Yellowstone just before sunset.

West Yellowstone is the perfect entry point to the park. A tiny town,charming and quaint bordering on kitschy. The log cabin service station and western shop on one corner stands alongside other log structures and classic western fake fronts. They have a summer stock theatre called the "Windmill Playhouse" whose facade features; well, a windmill. The mundane hotels look like those found along any American roadside save for the wooden bears hugging the carriage entrance pillars, or, in one case, attached to the wall as if they were attempting to attack the inhabitants through the windows. One restaurant has old style Christmas lights wrapped around the railing of it's outdoor seating area. Indoors, the seating is in miniature covered wagons surrounding a tableau of bison with a bird on it's back standing next to a fake campfire while stars are projected on the ceiling. The extremely young waiter was properly "duded up" in cowboy boots and a hat almost the size of his entire head.

Many of the businesses were closing or had already closed for the winter due to the dwindling number of visitors this late in the season. The only people we seemed to be sharing the town with were elderly bus tour travelers. The upside to this was the quiet, plus, the obligatory souvenir tee shirts we purchased were all 50% off. Prior to checking in at our hotel we stopped by the Yellowstone National Park sign at the entrance to the park for a photo op.

Our hotel attempted to create a "woodsy" atmosphere with pine cone patterned carpet and bed spreads and western inspired upholstery on the wing chair in our room. The lamps featured metal woodland animal silhouettes. My personal feeling is that this was taken one step too far when it came to the pine cone patterned shower curtain. I was somewhat distracted wondering where one would even find such a thing. Exhausted from the flight and the snowy drive we turned in.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cincinnati - An Epilogue

As I stated at the beginning of this series, my roommate from that period remains one of my most cherished friends. Because of AIDS some people mentioned here, as well as many other friends from that period have long since passed away. I am grateful that I am still here to write this. I am also grateful that my friend with whom I shared this adventure is still with me. I will always miss those that are gone. It is my wish that their spirits have found a place that is peaceful and tranquil.

Cincinnati - Some News From Home

The next morning my roommate and I were sitting in his mother's kitchen drinking coffee and nursing another in a series of hangovers. His sister, who also lived in San Francisco, was also spending the holidays in Ludlow, staying with her in laws. She came into the kitchen with the local Kentucky newspaper. "Have you boys seen the paper this morning" she asked as she dropped it on the table in front of us. On the front page was an aerial photo of our neighborhood in San Francisco totally blacked out. Apparently fierce Pacific storms had come through knocking out the power in several areas, our neighborhood included. We had a third roommate living with us, however, by this time he and his boyfriend were supposed to be away from our flat on their own family Christmas visit.

After several calls, friends assured me that there had been no looting, we lived in an area best described as "edgy", and our flat was secure. One friend even drove by it to make sure. What we didn't know was that our third roommate's trip had been delayed a couple of days and he and his boyfriend had been there the entire time. They even entertained friends with dinner by candlelight the night of the blackout.

As it was the holiday season there was gift shopping to be done. My roommate, at a total loss, had settled on a nightgown for his mother. We went to the lingerie department at Cincinnati's major department store. My roommate said to the saleswoman, "My mother is short and really, really fat. I was considering giving her a nightgown." After showing us several options, none of which seemed to be "it". We decided to take a time out and have lunch; with cocktails. During lunch, the light bulb went off and I suggested drinking glasses as she had been complaining all week about how many she managed to break. We headed to the housewares department where he purchased a large box containing sets of several varieties of glasses. He reported to me later that on Christmas morning they were well received. On our way back to his mother's home I bought a poinsettia as a thank you/Christmas gift for her. It was also well received.

On my final night we went our drinking, again.

The next day my roommate, who was staying on with his family through the holidays, dropped me off at the airport. I returned home on Christmas Eve, contemplating the unemployment which faced me at the dawn of the New Year.

A Cincinnati Sunday

Somehow my roommate and I decided to do Sunday brunch in the revolving restaurant atop one of the city's hotels. We were led to a stationary table in one of the corners of the restaurant. This worked out well in 2 ways. First, my roommate remarked that he didn't like taking a ride while he ate. Secondly, as we were stationary and the buffet was revolving, essentially the food was brought to us, as opposed to the patrons at the revolving tables who were forced to run around in a circle to sample their preferred dish.

We had a view of the art deco train station and, unfortunately, the stark public housing projects that had been built next to it. My roommate informed me that inside the station the arched front  of the building was constructed in such a way that if a person stood at one end of the arch and another person stood at the opposite end sound would be funneled and channeled along the arch and the two people could carry on a conversation. After brunch we sped, in our champagne haze, to the train station to check this phenomenon out.

As train service was no longer available to Cincinnati an attempt was made to convert the solid, art deco station into a mall. At this point this concept was not faring terribly well. There were large swaths of empty space. We sat on one of the worn wooden benches that had been there for decades and imagined the station in it's heyday. Men and women, dressed in brown, the proper color for traveling back in the day, suitcases in hand, heading off to the tracks where trains would take them to their various destinations.

In the spirit of the season, a Santa, looking lonely and forlorn, sat on a throne, looking like he was counting the minutes until his Santa shift ended.

We proceeded with our plan to test the voice channeling arch. My roommate went off to one end, I to the other. He and I had many longstanding and recurring jokes between the two of us. In deference to one of these we began, utilizing our best Katherine Hepburn impressions; a voice we both did extremely well; to recite lyrics from the Broadway show "CoCo". Giggling like little girls, we met back in the center. We happened to glance at the Santa. He was staring at us with a look that was a combination of confusion and terror. It took us a couple of seconds to realize that the Cincinnati Santa had heard our entire arch conversation, and, obviously, couldn't quite figure out what to make of it. At least we gave him something to ponder while he sat there.

We spent the remainder of the day seeing the "Cincinnati Sights". This amounted to a photo op in Fountain Square, and wandering into the Nederlander Hotel lobby. The hotel was in the process of being restored back to it's original splendor, which was still evident beneath the dust, debris and neglect. In the lobby the furnishings from the hotel rooms was being sold. Cheap, imitation leather chairs and headboards stood in rows with beat up bedside tables in the once grand space. The hotel's opulent past was evidenced by the tiered fountains, now dry and partially dismantled, presided over by demonic art deco figures, which stood on either side of a shabby staircase of grand proportions.

We returned to Ludlow to rest and change before returning to the city that evening for dinner, and more drinking. When I stop to consider it, with all the self abusing behavior we engaged in, it is truly remarkable that I have any memories of this trip at all.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Artfully Armed in Cincinatti

During our stay the Cincinatti Art Museum hosted a special exhibition entitled "Arms and Armor". It was an array of armor and armaments on loan from the collection of the Tower of London. One of the centerpieces of the exhibition was a suit of armor worn by King Henry the Eighth. It was housed in a glass case which sat on a raised dias. Wondering how our stature compared to King Henry's each of us stood nest to the armor on the platform. Apparently this was not allowed, as we were told by a guard in language that could not possibly be misunderstood.

A small group of unmistakeably gay men wandered through the exhibit. My roommate exclaimed "Boys!" When my date told him to return his tonuge to his mouth my roommate went on to say "Common garden variety. It was just so refreshing to see." We lived in San Franacisco at the time which teemed with gay men of every variety, Cincinnatti did not.

We dined that evening in a resturant just outside the city. As we stopped for gas the young kid working at the station gave us an odd smile as he handed my date his credit card slip through the driver side window and said "Have fun guys!" A few moments later my date realized "He saw the pot" which was in a bag plainly visible on the armrest between the two front seats. My roommate, sitting in the back seat, scanned our animal trimmed attire and said, "Oh great. Now there's going to be an APB for 3 queens in fur coats." I am happy to report that we reached the resturant without further incident.

Once there, we watched and waited as my roommate cracked and ate an entire crab. This evening my roommate paid his own way. I, however, was still the guest of the well to do doctor. Albiet, after bidding him farwell the next morning, I was back on my own dime.

Trouble in Cincinatti - Circa 1980's

I had met a doctor from a small town in Indiana while he was at a medical conference in San Francisco. He had flown me out to the Midwest for a long weekend over Columbus Day that year. We had road tripped visiting Indianapolis, Nashville, Indiana, an old artists community, and, for the first time, Chicago, now my home of the last 27 years. I contacted him to let him know that I would be in Ohio during the holidays and he consented to take the 4 hour drive and come to Cincinnati over the weekend we would be there. We had asked my roommates friends, prior to them leaving for Mexico City, for restaurant suggestions. They referred us to Delmonicos in the Stoffer hotel.

We drove into the city and met the doctor in his hotel room. He greeted us, asked where we were going for dinner and then lit a joint. My roommate rarely smoked pot but on this evening he said,"Oh, what the hell. Darling, give me that."

I knew we were headed for trouble.

We left the room and went downstairs to retrieve the doctor's car from the valet. He was told when he checked in, that this would take 20 minutes. He handed me cash, told us to order drinks in the bar and he would join us after he had ordered the car. The waitress brought our drinks. The doctor came into the bar slightly out of breath. "It only takes 5 minutes to get the car", he informed us. We looked at the drinks on the table, looked at each other, picked up the drinks and downed them like water.

I knew we were headed even deeper towards trouble.

My roommate surveyed the glasses, looked at the waitress and noted "She's gonna' faint when she sees how quickly we did that." We left the bar and walked down the long hall of the lobby.

Outside the doors of the hotel, waiting under the carriage entrance canopy, sat the car. It was brand new, long and black with lots of chrome. My roommate, unaccustomed to such rides, whispered to me "Is that the car?" "Shut up and get in the back seat", I hissed back. He did as he was told. Once on the road he discovered the light over the touring window in the back seat. "I'm going to turn this light on, just in case we see anyone I know", he said, flicking the switch and taking on his grandest air as he peered out the window at the ordinary people in their ordinary cars.

Trouble, trouble, trouble.

Upon arriving at Delmonicos we were seated by ourselves, off in a corner of the restaurant at a table overlooking Cincinnati's landmark Fountain Square. From behind the floor to ceiling windows we returned the waves of the people in the horse drawn hay wagons and carriages, decorated for the season, that circled the square.

A stiffbacked, snobby somolier was the first to approach us. Goodlooking, gay and insufferably uppity, he took our drink orders and left the wine list for us. My date had informed us early on that this dinner was to be his Christmas treat to us.

The waiter appeared. Also gay, also goodlooking with sandy brown hair, his fingers sporting numerous rings. After taking the order for his entree he asked my roommate "Would you like a salad with that?" To which my roommate replied "Could I wear it as a hat?" The waiter, not missing a beat, suggested "If you tilted it to the left it might look very smart."

The trouble had begun, the waiter appearing ready to aide and abet it.

Excellent, expensive wine was served, along with appetizers and an outstanding creme based soup. My date excused himself to go to the men's room giving me my opportunity to quiz my roommate,"What do you think of him." "He's nice", my roommate answered in a noncommittal fashion. "No really", I pressed. My roommate paused a moment, then stated, "How can I talk about a man who is paying for this meal?" Between the pot and the alcohol this struck both of us as extremely funny and we burst into peals of laughter., We had somewhat collected ourselves by the time my date returned to the table.

Our raucous, rowdy verging on inappropriate behavior during the course of the meal cannot be overstated. It reached it's zenith at 2 points. Once when my roommate asked the waiter for directions to the "vomitorium". Second when my date stated loudly, "I want more wine", and brought his glass down on the table with more force than was wise as the stem broke in half in his hand.

The waiter quickly replaced the glass and we watched the somoliers aforementioned snobby veneer crack as he approached the table, stared down at my date and in a flat, even, scolding tone said "You broke the glass?" Laughter often begets laughter and this statement made us laugh some more.

We composed ourselves enough by the end of the meal to apologize to the waiter for any embarrassment we may have caused him. He set our minds at rest by stating "This is just the way I am when I go out."

For dessert we ordered crepes which were prepared tableside. As we were the last guests left the waiter sat with us as the crepes were made. We learned that he was an actor, although where he would have plied this trade in Cincinnati remains a mystery to me, and waited tables when he was not working in his preferred profession.

It remains one of the most expensive meals I have ever had. Although me and my roommate had no idea what the final tab was the liquor and wine bill came to $250, a considerable sum at the time.