26-Apr-2005 -- And then there were two! Like many people, I’ve had my eye on this confluence for a long time, one of the last few land-based virgin confluences in the forty-eight states. I tried to secure permission to visit this site through various channels, including weekly calls to the Joint Business Council of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes at Wind River—for over nine months! My contact was a wonderful young lady named Terah; she was instrumental in helping me obtain actual permission to visit the site. We were old friends by the time I was actually able to make my visit in April, 2005. I had difficulty getting on the Tribal Council agenda during their semiweekly meetings, due to more pressing Wind River business. I sent out a nice package explaining confluence hunting and their connection to this pursuit. Eventually, this package did help me garner the necessary approvals, though via an indirect method.
As a thank-you for being allowed access to the reservation, I offered to speak to tribal school children about my day job with NASA (as well as confluence hunting). The teachers and administrators to whom I spoke were as excited about confluence hunting as robotic planetary exploration! Since the Tribal Council was not meeting between February and May, they helped me obtain rightful permission to visit the site by pushing paperwork quickly (thanks, Rory!) and enlisting the reservation game wardens to accompany us. My favorite laugh during this trip was when the wardens started following me (and my GPS), proclaiming, "We’ve never had a white guide before." That was hilarious!
Anyway, this trip began at 7 am on Saturday, April 23, 2005, in my tan Buick Le Sabre Custom rental car. My 1994 Honda del Sol is pushing 140000 miles, so I thought I’d give the old girl a rest this trip. Given the price of petrol these days, I was bummed about being bumped up to the Buick, but driving in such luxury for $20/day can’t be beat! Even better, the car was equipped with satellite radio, so I didn’t use the CD player once in six days and 2600 miles of driving! I parked the dial on the 70’s station most of the time, very often hearing some long-forgotten gems from my youth during this five-state roadtrip.
I made great time through California, and the 36 miles of I-15 through Arizona’s Virgin River Canyon is always a highlight of this drive. I stopped in St. George for fuel, a coke, and a sandwich, but I was unsuccessful in finding a viewpoint to take a nice photo of the Mormon temple. Renewed, I hit I-15 north for the remainder of my journey, including viewing a nice roadside dust devil, just as the Spirit rover was doing the same on Mars a few hundred million miles away! I arrived at my friends’ place in Provo just before 5 pm; what a lovely community! The view from their front yard was spectacular, with snow-capped peaks, beautiful horses, and Utah Lake a few minutes away.
The next day was wonderful, as I finally got to play tourist around SLC. We hit the road late morning, our spirits only slightly dampened by the gloomy weather. We did a drive-by tour of Bridal Veil Falls before touring the lodge at Sundance. From there, we visited Park City, had lunch, and set off for the capital city. The state capitol was closed and surrounded by construction material; I struggled to take a nice photo, using beautiful spring blossoming trees to hide scaffolding, bulldozers, etc. War Memorial Park offered nice views as well. We drove into the hills, and I caught my first glimpse of the city as a whole (gorgeous!) and the lake.
A visit to SLC wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Temple Square, so we headed there next. What a lovely area, though we were disappointed that the tabernacle was closed. Since we were having such a nice day, we decided to take State St. south, all the way back to Provo. This allowed us to pass the original KFC (huh? shouldn’t this be in Kentucky?) before returning home for nice appetizers and drinks. We opted for a mellow Sunday evening; after all, I had a long drive to Ft. Washakie, Wyoming (and 43ºN 109ºW) the next day.
I awoke at 5:45 am on Monday the 25th, packed, and hugged my goodbyes to my most gracious of hosts. I was going to take a northeasterly shortcut, again by Sundance, but I missed my exit! Aaargh! At least the weather wasn’t too bad, though it was still rainy. I took I-15N into SLC, and then I-80E towards Wyoming. The rush hour traffic in SLC wasn’t too bad, but the light rain and mountain passes of I-80 made for an intense drive. Despite running a bit late, I did have to double back for a nice photo of Castle Rock. I stopped around the UT/WY border, enjoying the early morning view over a misty lake. My gasoline situation was getting a bit dire, but luckily I made it to Green River, WY, with a few drops remaining.
After enjoying a fill-up for a paltry $2.14 per gallon (at least by California standards), I headed north towards Farson and Lander on 191N and 28N, respectively. This is rugged country, no doubt about it, including a few crossings of the continental divide at elevations of about 7500 feet (2300 meters). One of my favorite views of the entire trip was Red Rock Canyon, just a few tens of miles from the confluence (picture). Gorgeous! I also enjoyed seeing falling snow for the first time in many months, even if only of the flurry variety. Running a bit behind schedule, I passed my motel in Lander and entered the Wind River Indian Reservation, finally arriving in Ft. Washakie around 12:30 pm.
Even though I was a mere half-dozen miles from the confluence, this day was about giving something back to my gracious hosts. I arrived at the Ft. Washakie School just in time to speak to many of the elementary school students about the Mars Exploration Rovers. I worked on this mission for NASA at JPL for about two years, and the kids couldn’t have been more engaged and excited. Even though I was running behind schedule, I still managed to show two PowerPoint slide shows, my rover animation video, and take some questions at the end. The audience size was twice what was anticipated, which was great!
After this brief stop, it was off to the high school. They were generally busy with standardized testing, and my lateness precluded much NASA outreach. However, I was given about twelve minutes to stir up interest in visiting the confluence the next morning; no students had signed up to this point! I turned on as much charm and charisma as possible, and by the end of my twelve minutes, I had a flock of students signing up for our confluence adventure the next morning! After finishing up at the school, I went to the Tribal Council office and finally met Terah. We were like old friends, thanks to my nine months of weekly harassing phone calls. I showed her some NASA stuff and gave her some homemade chocolate chip/pecan cookies, before we went over to meet some members of the Tribal Council and present my gifts (again, homemade cookies).
Since sunset was still many hours away, I decided to drive out towards the confluence. I had no trouble navigating South Fork road, which turned to gravel about 2.3 miles (3.7 km) from the confluence. I pressed on, driving within 0.95 miles (1.5 km) of the confluence on this windy gravel road. It looked like the trek the next day would be a piece of cake! On the return trip, I passed Cemetery Road, and presumed (correctly) I was near Sacajawea’s gravesite. I stopped to take a photo (picture) and pay my respects for this heroine of the Lewis and Clark expedition 200 years ago. Terah happened to see me out there on her way home from work, so she stopped by for some more bonding. I was most intrigued to find out that Sacajawea was a distant relative of Terah's! However, it was time to head to Lander and check into my motel. I had a nice dinner at the motel, but fatigue set in quickly, so I hit the hay after filling out a few postcards and watching an NBA play-off game.
Luckily, I woke up at 7:04 am, only four minutes behind schedule, on the confluence-hunting day. The motel folks somehow managed to screw up my wake-up call, which made me quite livid, since I told them the wake-up call was critical. I stopped at the school and prepared to ride out towards the confluence with the high school P.E. teacher. She offered extra-credit to the students that chose to join us, so we had a full load in our SUV. I checked out the GPS and noted that the north access road of the school was exactly on the 43rd parallel! It was a truly gorgeous day as we set off shortly after 9 am, meeting up with four game wardens at the point where South Fork Rd. turns to gravel. They followed us to the closest approach point I reached the day before. I was ready to begin the hike, but the game wardens said they could get much closer, so we piled in the SUV and followed them across a bumpy and rocky car "trail" for twenty minutes or so.
We went as far as our SUV could take us, an unbelievably bouncy yet fun journey. This final stopping point happened to be exactly on the 109th parallel, only 0.29 miles (0.47 km) straight south of the confluence. With Garmin leading the way, we set off for our final destination, essentially scaling a hill called Mt. Timmoco. You would think that at least once during this trip I would have guessed correctly at the pronunciation of all the Native words I encountered, but, alas, this was not the case. The view from the pinnacle of Mt. Timmoco to the NNW (picture) was divine, a gorgeous, ruddy chugwater basin. At this point, we only required a downhill scramble of 449 feet (137 meters) to reach the confluence.
The confluence point was on the northeast-facing slope of this steep hill, so this confounded our attempts to get good GPS satellite coverage. With eight satellites tracking, I obtained all zeroes with a GPS error of 15 feet (4.6 meters), and an approximate elevation of 6246 feet (1904 meters). From a topographic map, I estimate the true elevation at 6260 feet (1908 meters), so this agreement is pretty good. We celebrated at the confluence point with swigs of water, the placing of a tasteful confluence marker, and the requisite photos. I captured digital images from the DCP in the four cardinal and four diagonal directions. My Nikon CoolPix 3500 digital camera worked like a champ, though I had a cheap, throwaway camera for redundancy as well.
I took a group photo (picture) near the confluence point, with permission from the group to upload the picture to the web. One of the students also caught a lizard (photo) right near the DCP point; he quickly become our official mascot for the visit, and we chose "Bob" for his moniker. This area is dominated by Rocky Mountain juniper trees, limber pines, and short prickly pear cactus. Brushes include greybrush (bitterbrush or buckbrush), sage, and rabbit brush. Lichens and mosses, as we all learned in school, generally grew on the north-facing sides of rocks. Wildflowers were rare, though we did spy some tiny white flowers named opal phlox. Fauna were scarce during this visit (other than Bob), though this area is replete with grasshoppers, rattlesnakes, cottontail, antelope, black bear, mountain lion, prairie dogs, badgers, mule deer, and golden and bald eagles. The geology of this area is glacial moraine (or till), which basically means that large rocks (granite) were transported from the Wind River range of the Rocky Mountains via ancient glaciers. This region is typical of low-humidity, high-mountain desert terrain, and has long been home for Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone that share this land, the only reservation in the state of Wyoming.
Our trek back to Ft. Washakie was fairly uneventful, though I did use the opportunity to provide NASA "show-and-tell" with the Native high school students in our SUV. I also took as many of their NASA questions as I could before returning to my Buick and heading out of town. I departed the long way for Grand Junction, Colorado, via Rawlins and Baggs (WY). I hit some rain, a foretaste of what was to come. Not twenty-hours after I left Wind River, they were dumped on by a massive snowstorm of over a foot! Wow, I got very lucky with this confluence visit! The journey through Colorado was fairly eventful as well, complete with being pulled over by law enforcement for speeding (a confluence tradition) and running out of gas on I-70! Luckily, I dodged both bullets, with a mere warning from the officer, and a good Samaritan with a gas can just east of Parachute, CO.
I’d like to thank all of the folks at Wind River who made this visit possible. Thanks for trusting an outsider (from California, no less) to document this confluence legally. Incidentally, the Tribal Council would like me to mention that future visits to this confluence are discouraged. I’d also like to thank all the teachers, students, and administrators at Ft. Washakie School. Doing outreach with your wide-eyed, inquisitive pupils was one of the highlights of this fabulous trip. Finally, a special thanks to Mike, Mary, Barb, and Barb’s kids—it was just great seeing you again! You were such gracious hosts through this entire trip, and I thank you deeply. It was pleasure legally closing out the primary confluences in the great state of Wyoming, as I have done in Texas, Georgia, Montana, and New Mexico (the latter with Steve Adams). Watch out, Ohio—you’re next!