14-Sep-2003 -- I decided to continue my adventures by visiting a few more of the last remaining virgin confluences in the western United States. This enabled me to partake of some of the most beautiful scenery in America during a truly Type-A tour of Craters of the Moon, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks. It also offered a wonderful side benefit—I picked up states #46 and #47 in visiting Montana and Idaho, respectively. Watch out North Dakota, Kentucky, and Louisiana—I’m gunning for you! This confluence hunting adventure began on Friday, September 12, 2003, with a flight from LAX to Billings, including a six-minute layover in Denver International Airport! I spent the night in Dillon, Montana before snagging the confluence of 45°N and 113°W the next day. That Saturday was filled with wonderful sightseeing trips to Craters of the Moon, Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Parks. I spent Saturday night in West Yellowstone, Montana, ready for another wonderful day of playing tourist and hunting confluences.
I set the alarm for around 6:15 am, not exactly ideal for a night owl on vacation. I knew I had a big day ahead of me, though. The motel restaurant opened at 7 am, and I treated myself to a big country breakfast, a most worthy adversary for my daily statin drug. It got down to 26 °F (-3 °C) overnight, even a bit brisk for me since I left my window open all night. As is my custom, I was running around in shorts, drawing stares of disbelief from bundled tourists. I checked out of the motel, gassed up, bought bottled water, and hit Yellowstone around 8:15 am. The traffic jams were abysmal, despite being there after prime tourist season. After I rounded a bend, I found out the jam was due to a preponderance of bison blanketing the roadway! At one point, they literally surrounded every side of my Suzuki Grand Vitara, so I snapped a few quick photos. I also enjoyed some wonderful views of grazing elk, erupting geysers, sulfurous hot springs, Yellowstone Lake, and the ever-reliable Old Faithful.
I navigated the paved routes through Yellowstone, expected to exit the park at the northeast entrance. The road to this portion of the park was closed, so I doubled back west, putting me further behind schedule. I drove through Norris and Mammoth, exiting the north boundary of the park on my way to I-90. Someday I will have to return to this amazing location when I can spend a bit more time soaking up its ambience. I made good time on 89N and then finally turned east on I-90. Endless road construction slowed my progress further, but I started picking up time as I approached Billings. I stopped for gas at the Highway 212 exit, right at the Little Bighorn Battlefield site in Crow Agency. Unfortunately, I was too far behind schedule to check out this historic locale. I called the landowner who leases the property containing the intersection of 45°N and 106°W. He said I was about two hours from his ranch, and it was already 4 pm, so I knew this confluence visit would be a sunset visit (at best).
I made pretty good time on Highway 212 through Busby, Lame Deer, and Ashland. I then turned south on Highway 484 about three miles east of Ashland, following the immaculate directions from the ranch manager. After about twenty miles, the road turned to gravel, as expected, and I finally found my turn-off onto a red clay road heading east. It was like a video game driving down these rural highways, with deer leaping across the road with great regularity. I nearly mowed down a red fox as well. Why there were so many apparently despondent and suicidal animals remains a mystery to me. Anyway, I found the mailbox I was seeking and continued driving another four miles, but there was no ranch house to be found. Thanks to my utter and complete lack of common sense, I neglected to follow the obvious driveway at the mailbox, a veer to the right. I wandered aimlessly up and down the “main” road, searching in vain for the ranch, dodging more deer, and watching the sun sink in the west.
It finally occurred to me that I should probably have taken the driveway at the mailbox, so I doubled back and did just that. After a few more miscues, I finally found the ranch house, though I didn’t find the owner right away. It was 6:45 pm by this time—I was a good 45 minutes late. The owner finally heard my shouts, and we decided to immediately trek out to the sight in his truck before darkness fell. The day I left LA for this confluence trip, I looked on the DCP website and found out I had been “scooped” in visiting this site—by three days! Since I had been planning a visit to this sight with the landowner for months, I decided to go ahead and visit the site. I find it deliciously ironic I was scooped by a reporter! By the way, congratulations on your first successful confluence visit, Curt! Many more successes to you. On 11-Sep-2003, Curt managed to find the ranch owner, no small feat itself. To the landowner’s credit, he didn’t turn Curt away after his long drive, despite my prior arrangements. I would have done the same thing in the landowner’s place.
We piled into an old truck and tackled a truly challenging road for the six-mile journey to the confluence. Dusk was rapidly approaching, but I figured I might just log a successful visit before dark. We noticed Curt’s tire tracks throughout the trek; his journey was probably even more harrowing, given earlier rainstorms that week. This route was bumpy, very hilly, one-lane, with a few sheer drops on both sides. I held my breath and was thankful I’m not prone to motion sickness. The Garmin etrex Legend was doing a nice job tracking our progress; being “GPS boy” again relieved me of cattle-gate duty along the route. We straddled the crest of Black Eagle Butte as we approached the Wyoming border. This confluence is one of many meant to lie on the boundary between two states. Early surveying inaccuracies now place this confluence about 0.45 miles north of the state line. On the road itself, we managed to get within 0.15 miles of the confluence. I set off to visit the exact spot while the landowner drove to the border and turned the truck around.
I scrambled down a fairly steep hill, heading essentially straight east. From topographic maps, I knew I would have to cross a small ravine as well. It was far steeper than I expected, the sides of a dry wash. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to climb out of the wash, but I was able to do so by switching back and forth during my ascent. Wearing shorts wasn’t a good idea, though. Once across the wash, I had little trouble finding the confluence, though it was certainly after sundown. I took some quick pictures with my throwaway camera (for redundancy) and then took pictures in the four cardinal directions with my Nikon CoolPix 3500. I had to change the settings to “sunset” mode because the pictures were fairly dark. I also took the coveted “all-zeroes” picture of my GPS. With eight satellites tracking, I obtained an altitude estimate of 3895 feet (1187 meters), which agrees very well with my estimate of 3870 feet (1180 meters), based on detailed topographic maps. Though my GPS uncertainty was washed out in the best overall GPS photo, from other pictures I estimate a GPS accuracy no worse than 25 feet (8 meters).
Despite the impending twilight, I took a few moments to enjoy the view from 45°N and 106°W. The views were dominated by rolling hills with native prairie grass, ponderosa and juniper pine, and black sage. As with most of my confluence visits, this was on cattle-grazing land, so solidified evidence of a bovine presence abounded. According to the landowner, wildlife in the area include mule deer, elk, red foxes, coyotes, sharptail grouse, sage hens, wild turkeys, and eagles. As my tenth confluence visit drew to a close, I reflected on playing “Buzz Aldrin” to Curt’s “Neal Armstrong.” Surprisingly, it did very little to decrease my enjoyment of confluence hunting. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, when I look at what drew me to confluence hunting in the first place: meeting new people, seeing new parts of the country, contributing to a scientific project, leaving my cubicle for the beauty and grandeur of nature, escaping the rat race of Southern California, challenging myself, and doing NASA outreach in previously unvisited parts of the United States.
Speaking of NASA outreach, this trip to Montana was far from over. I had a long-anticipated date with Broadus Elementary School the next morning, telling 170 K-6 students about my job as a propulsion engineer on the Mars Exploration Rovers mission. First, though, I had to get to Broadus! This seemed a daunting enough challenge without the next snafu awaiting us—the landowner’s truck wouldn’t start! Oh, boy. We were really not looking forward to the six-mile walk back to his ranch. Luckily, some expert tinkering under the hood (not by me, obviously!) eventually set us on our way. I thanked the landowner for his efforts and then set off for Broadus, Montana, following the directions in reverse order. I drove very cautiously, especially given the plethora of deer leaping across the road in front of me. I couldn’t drive more than a mile or two without hitting the brakes, trying to avoid making venison puree. It was really starting to stress me out, but the unreal view of the summer Milky Way around Antares was worth it.
I finally hit pavement on Highway 484 and then turned right on Highway 212 for the hour-long drive to Broadus. I had fully intended on checking into my motel in Broadus and then driving 400 miles round-trip to the North Dakota border, in order to snag state #48. Given that much of that journey would have been on deer-lined state highways (and the interstates aren’t much better!), I finally showed some common sense and scuttled that road-trip. North Dakota would just have to wait. I found the motel office at 10:45 pm, unfortunately requiring me to wake up the desk clerk. Broadus was much smaller than I thought it would be, with a population of about 250 and everything closed. This was unfortunate, because I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The super-nice motel clerk gave me a complimentary bag of microwave popcorn and told me where the “pop” machine was at the motel (there’s a good Midwestern word I grew up with!). I found my room and enjoyed the faux-buttered treat with an A&W root beer. Totally wiped out, I hit the hay around midnight, setting the alarm for 6 am.
Monday the 15th dawned bright and clear, and I checked out of my awesome room (that set me back a mere $40!) and headed to the county courthouse. I enjoyed a view donut holes and mini-muffins in the motel lobby, along with some grape and orange juice. After gassing up, I met the Powder River County officials at 7 am. We had long ago arranged a breakfast (my second of the morning) to discuss confluence hunting and my day job for NASA. I had a wonderful time telling them about my prior confluence adventures and my work as a propulsion engineer for JPL. The local reporter interviewed me at the breakfast gathering as well; I’m looking forward to seeing the article. The paper comes out each Thursday, a good way to stay connected in this 3297 square-mile county with a population of only 1824.
I left for Broadus Elementary School around 7:45 am, prepared to speak to all K-6 students from 8:30-9:30 am. Weeks earlier, I sent out NASA “goodies” for all the students and made arrangements to show a PowerPoint presentation and video about the Mars Exploration Rover mission. I also brought a space shuttle tile, piece of aerogel, iron meteorite, and 3D Mars poster for “show-and-tell.” Bright young minds, an idyllic setting, interested teachers, a drop-dead gorgeous principal—what more could I ask for? The presentation went very well, though I had some trouble getting on the road by 9:30 am. I was told I could probably speed a bit on Native American Land, so I started doing about 85-90 mph once I hit Ashland. This worried me, given my confluence-related speeding ticket in Nebraska two weeks earlier, but I lucked out this time. I arrived at the Billings Airport in plenty of time, leaving the departure gate 10 minutes early, in fact! My luck ran out on the tarmac, however. A $0.99 part failed, so we had to return to the gate. This part was nowhere to be found in Billings, so I was routed to LAX through Salt Lake City on Delta Airlines. This delayed my LA arrival by over five hours, a minor annoyance during an otherwise unbelievable weekend of confluence hunting, sightseeing, and NASA outreach.
I would like to thank the landowner, Powder River County officials, local reporter, and the folks of Broadus Elementary School for enabling this enjoyable confluence adventure. It was a special treat meeting all of you, and I hope our paths may cross again one day