Yellowstone

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At midnight I put my girlfriend on a plane to the Philippines for her five-week family reunion, and then I went home to bed. At six AM my mother and I loaded the car for the first day of our vacation together. The first leg of our journey was a pretty much straight shot from Seattle to Columbia Falls, Montana for a total of 532 miles. The route I chose was apparently the shortest one, a later check of Google Maps came up with the same route. We drove over Snoqualmie Pass to Ellensburg, where the trees turn off like a light. Indian John Hill Rest Area at mile marker 89 is the first one east of Seattle, which is a long way to go for people who practically take coffee on an IV drip.

After Ellensburg I-90 climbs over a desolate pass adorned by the Wild Horse Wind Farm and drops to cross the Columbia River at Vantage, then climbs again sharply, presenting spectacular views, to reach the Columbia plateau. This is a vast arid land reclaimed for agriculture by irrigation. Here the freeway goes straight as an arrow for seventy miles, punctuated only by the city of Moses Lake halfway along. It was sunny but cool, and we saw bad weather far ahead of us to the east. At Ritzville the freeway made a gentle bend northeast to make a beeline for Spokane. Small lakes were seen along the freeway here. We stopped in the very small town of Sprague for gas, and perhaps an early lunch, but the menu was just for breakfast, so we walked out. As we approached Spokane we drove into the overcast weather, and pine trees began to be seen again in slowly increasing density. In downtown Spokane I gassed up again, and we settled for a quick McDonald's lunch.

Crossing into Idaho, we saw the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. This was the skinny "panhandle" of Idaho, only about seventy miles across here, but very beautiful and mountainous, highlighted by the jewel that is Lake Coeur d'Alene. All the towns here, Smelterville, Kellogg, Wallace, are strung out on a very narrow line that hugs the freeway as the walls of the Rockies rise close to each side. The freeway climbs up to Lookout Pass, 4725 feet, and at the top we entered Montana. Then down, down, down, 33 miles to St. Regis, where we got off the freeway, gassed up again, and began to travel back roads.

From St. Regis to Plains, the road hugged a winding river. Then we climbed some hills and dropped down into the flats which mark the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountain trench. Here the road goes on and on, straight as an arrow through farm country, which then makes a 90 degree bend to the right and travels through a beautiful but nameless flat valley bottom that meets the close mountain walls with hardly a taper. And this "lost valley" road took us directly to the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest lake in the Western US, bigger than Lake Tahoe even.

The economy of this area around Kalispell, Montana is dependent on tourism to Glacier National Park, but the season was winding up, and the park was mostly closed at any rate due to construction on the Going To The Sun Highway. The place is unspeakably beautiful, but there was a sense of everyone rushing to "laager up" for the winter. At Columbia Falls I visited my aunt and uncle for a few hours, we all ate out together at a very popular place for ribs, and just when my mother and I checked into the Super 8 for the night, a cold front passed through with horrific winds.

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This was day two of my vacation. We left Columbia Falls at dawn and drove down the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, which was dotted with all sorts of dilapidated inns and campgrounds which perhaps only came alive in the summer time. But the lake itself is beautiful. After hooking back up with I-90 everything I saw was new to me, because I had never even made it as far as Missoula in my life. The weather got progressively colder and grayer, and the elevation got higher and higher, but there was no precipitation until nearly sunset, and when it came, it was in the form of snow and rain.

Butte, Montana has a huge hole in the ground which was a mining operation, but they wanted you to pay to see it, and the ticket office was closed at any rate. At the Homestake Pass just east of Butte we crossed the Continental Divide, but the pass seemed to be a relatively short and tame one because we were already so high. Livingston, Montana is the gateway to Yellowstone's north entrance, and it sits at a narrow gap between tall mountains that looks like a literal gateway, with open rangeland beyond. When I return here with Fely we will fly to the Bozeman airport and pass through this way in a rental car. We followed the Yellowstone River now down its course to the Missouri River. The Rockies were left behind, but there was a wide band of foothills we had to climb up and down like waves on the ocean for many miles, and some of the trees were burnt by fire recently.


Finally at Laurel, Montana we left the freeway and headed southwest to Belfry, Montana, about forty miles away, to visit a friend of my mother's. The entire town is pictured above. We almost ran over two deer on the way in. There's a sign that says, "What part of SPEED LIMIT 25 MPH don't you understand?" because people rush through on their way to Cody, Wyoming and there's a little school. My mother didn't have her friend's address, but she knew what her car looked like, so we drove every road in the town until we found it, which only took a few minutes. We got pizza from a Casino/Bar/Grill that had 16 slot machines being played by the same six locals who sat there every other day. On the way out of town we almost hit another deer. It got dark, so we checked into the Best Western in Laurel for the night. Total driving distance today was 533 miles.

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Day three of my vacation, we only covered 416 miles because now we're starting to stop and look at stuff rather than just drive. Also it was a little slower going because there was heavy snow most of the way, especially around Billings Montana. Our first stop was the National Cememtary at the site of Custer's Last Stand, where 260 US Calvary men (and 100 Indians) lost their lives at the Battle of Little Big Horn. I wanted to grab a picture of Custer's tombstone but I couldn't find it. The visitor's center, however, was interesting. There was a display of the weapons used by both sides, and the story was laid out. The Indians, of course, were right. The government had promised that the Black Hills would be theirs forever, but the instant gold was found there, we wanted it back. Some things that happened in our American history were not so nice. Then again, by the time of the Navaho code talkers in World War II, we were all fighting as one people. The monument was staffed by Native Americans who lived nearby on the Crow Reservation, but they were just ordinary Americans like me, also worried about driving in the snow. Pictured below is Custer's actual dress uniform (the piping yellowed by age) and a picture of him wearing it. I love things like this.

The town of Buffalo, Wyoming had just been socked with a heavy snow storm, and all the power was out. I found one gas station with power, but I had to wait for the pump to reset before I could get more gas. Road construction in town shellacked my car with mud that would remain for the rest of my trip. But I never needed to chain up, I was using Fely's front wheel drive Ford Escort, which eats snow and ice for lunch.

Near Gillette, Wyoming, I got pulled over by a Stater and was given a warning for a cracked windshield. I ALWAYS get harrassed by the Wyoming staters when I drive the freeway there. One time they thought I was a Mexican sneaking over the border. I think in the future I will stay on the back roads. We got off the freeway and drove over beautiful country to the Devil's Tower. The clouds were so low I thought I wasn't going to see it, but when we got close, the clouds lifted a bit and I saw it, just like in the movie Close Encounters:

If I had more time I would have liked to explore the park around the Tower more, there's a canyon and some weird red rocks, and a "town" of Prairie Dogs. There's no place flat enough for a UFO landing strip, however. The road spirals up and up, until it hits a parking lot at the very base of the talus eroded from the tower, and this is what you see:

When I come back here with Fely and not my mother, I want to walk all the way around the Tower on the blacktop loop trail, and I hope to do it on a sunnier day. The rest of the trip was through rain over the border into South Dakota, ending up in Rapid City, which has plenty of hotels on the Mount Rushmore Highway out of town. This was as far East as we would go, halfway across the country, and it was far enough.

Now we are come to day four of my vacation, and my favorite part, Mount Rushmore. The weather was sunny, perfect for viewing, but cold. The mountain was first visible as the left-most little squiggle on a ridge twenty miles to the southeast as you drive out of Rapid City past a veritable disneyland of touristy things. We got up there at about 8:30 AM, the sun was low in the dawn sky, and the Presidents all face due east. Ten dollars to park in a multi-level garage.

No pictures you've seen will compare to seeing this monument with your own eyes. And the neatest part of all is the discovery that everyone around you are Americans from every corner of the country. Everyone is friendly and willing to share where they come from. You see, this isn't a local tourist attraction, this is the one pilgrimmage place for all Americans. It's like the one universal American meeting place.

On the way down off the mountain there's a unique view of just George Washington which surprised me, we had to stop and get it. I spun my tires for a minute or two getting back out of the snow on the side of the road after snapping this, however.

Not to be outdone, the Indians are making an even bigger statue of Chief Crazy Horse only a few miles to the west. Now this cost us twenty dollars to see, except that you couldn't get close to it and it's very far from being complete. But to see all the Indian paraphernalia in the visitor's center is worth the price of admission. There were many other things to do in the Black Hills, it was worth a return visit, but for this trip I kind of rushed things along. We dropped out of South Dakota and back into Wyoming and turned due south, making for I-25.

At this point we pretty much dropped totally off the grid and hustled over a desolate emptiness devoid of any services. But it interested me, because I had written a portion of an unpublished novel set in this place where South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming meet, and now I was seeing the area for the first time. We passed through Lusk, then turned southwest to intercept I-25 at Orin Junction, in the broad valley of the North Platte River, where we had lunch at a truck stop. The food is always good at truck stops. It better be, or no one would stop.

From there it was a straight shot to Casper, which I had never seen. This is the "big city" in Wyoming, and I thought it would be nice to live there right in the middle of all the good stuff. As we continued west out of Casper, following a school bus full of kids from Lovell Wyoming, we hit a place called "Hell's Half Acre" (shown above) where the movie Starship Troopers was filmed. This is a bizarre landscape of sandstone carved by erosion which used to be serviced by a roadside cafe, but apparently the recession knocked them over into bankruptcy. Good thing I gassed up and took a pee stop in Casper, or I'd be a hurting unit at that point.


It was more or less a straight two-lane road that went on and on to the west, at 75 MPH, and despite the utter desolation of the land we were passing through, I thought it was a good road, more efficient than the ups and downs of the I-80 freeway in the south of Wyoming. It dropped gently down and down past wind-carved sandstone rock formations until we hit the town of Shoshoni and turned north. And here I was met with a pleasant surprise. We passed between two mountain ranges by crossing through the Wind River Canyon, shown above. It was surpassingly beautiful, and I had no idea it was here. This took us to Thermopolis, Wyoming, a town with vast hot springs which are piped to various establishments. I chose the Days Inn within the State Park, and we watched deer as we soaked in a hot tub with stinky sulfurous mineral water that came right from the ground. All in all, a wonderful day, distance 390 miles.


Day 5 was our first Yellowstone Park Day, and it alone was so eventful I need to break it up into two maps. It started in the morning as we toured Thermopolis Hot Springs State Park just before dawn. I went out on a footbridge to get the following shot of the limestone formations, but my mother was chicken and didn't follow me. It was a foretaste of Yellowstone, sort of like the Chandelier Tree is a foretaste of the Redwoods.

The ranger lady at the East Entrance was very nice, for only $10 she gave my mother a Senior Pass that would give her free access to all National Parks and Monuments for her and her entourage for the rest of her life. She jumped on the deal. This entrance involves the rather high Sylvan Pass, we were lucky, the following day it would require chains to drive. Soon after entering the park, I got my first glimpse of Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Tetons to the south.

On the very shores of Yellowstone lake we saw our first thermal feature. I think it was good that it was cold, I believe the steam was far more visible here. Of course, by the time I was done touring the park, something like this wouldn't get a second glance.

The Park is one big giant wildlife safari like at Northwest Forest Trek near Eatonville. There was a huge male Buffalo right in the middle of the road near the Fishing Bridge, and here was his herd. Oooo, ahhhh:

The we hit our first geyser basin, and walked around such features as this boiling mud puddle, and the "Dragon's Mouth", etc. I made video of many of the attractions, because still pictures don't do them justice, and a good sound system would help even better. There was an ever-present stink of sulphur, like rotten eggs.

Now we are come to my favorite part of the entire park, Yellowstone Falls, which is unbelievably beautiful. It looks exactly like an abstract painting made real before your eyes. Words fail. I will never forget the beauty of the Yellowstone Canyon, and I will always have my pictures to remind me. The colors....


At the Norris Geyser Basin we went on a short hike to see what we could see, and there we ran into Steamboat Geyser, which in full eruption is twice as high as Old Faithful, but there are little eruptions every two or three minutes 24 hours a day.

Near the North Entrance we dropped down off the Yellowstone Caldera plateau and took a side trip along what was called the "Upper Terrace", which was a virtual museum of bizarre features. My mother's favorite one is this gold rainbow thing, with a little running fountain of hot water on the top. Total distance to here was 208 miles.

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The ideal way to see Yellowstone is to drive the entire figure-8 of the Grand Loop. But this was early October and snow had closed one leg, and construction had closed another. So we had to turn around at Mammoth Hot Springs and backtrack. The hot springs themselves are one of the most amazing things you'll ever see. It's always changing, when I return next time with Fely it will look different. It's like a bizarre wall of delicate multi-colored limestone "cups" holding overflowing hot water, and the water itself has the dissolved minerals to build more cups.

On the way back up to the plateau we passed Rustic Falls pouring over a black backdrop, and it started to snow in a curious way. None of the flakes were wet enough to so much as strike my windshield, they were all just shunted out of the way. We passed the Falls and came to the Sulphur Caldron. There are so many things to see in this park, that two days would never do them justice. It needs a week to see it all.

We crossed the Continental Divide and skirted Lewis Lake, whose outlet pours over Lewis Falls here. It was nothing like Yellowstone Falls, but I was making my way to a hotel back in the "World", intending to do the Old Faithful area the next day. We left the park and entered a vast place donated by John D. Rockerfeller Jr. that connects directly to Grand Teton National Park. But the sun was going down, a storm was due to hit, so I just passed quickly through for now. Jackson Hole is a huge flat valley with the wall of the Tetons on one side, and a National Elk Refuge on the other. Dark clouds moved in, but a single beautiful sunbeam lit up a patch of about five acres high on the Elk side. We checked into the Virginian in Jackson and ordered pizza from Mountain High Pizza Pie. Total distance 145 miles.

Day six of my vacation and here was the main event, but for the first time I didn't feel rushed at all. The storm had passed with only a light sprinkling of snow on my car, but the northern half of Yellowstone was socked under, with chains required. It was sunny but very cold. The first order of the day was a tour through the astonishing beauty of the Grand Tetons, which included a great half hour movie in the Visitor's Center. I have never been disappointed by a National Park.

The road to the Old Faithful area was icy, but snow tires were not required. You cross the Continental Divide three times. We only had to wait a half hour to see it erupt at 12:46 PM, but we sat where the wind shifted the steam and "rain" directly over us, so the picture wouldn't show much. We ate lunch at the deli and looked at the gift shop, and the next eruption was to be at 2:19 PM, so we went to the nearby Black Sand Geyser Basin to see what we could see. And there was, amid various colored pools, a small geyser that erupted continuously:

Also there was something called the Emerald Pool, with a beautiful green color caused by bacteria that lived in hot water:

For the next show at Old Faithful, we sat to the side to see it better. Both times I made a movie of the initial eruption. This time I caught a rainbow. People came from as far as China to see this thing, and it was incredible, but the sound and fury made some babies cry.


In the Midway Geyser Basin we took a half-mile hike on a boardwalk to see various features, such as a waterfall of boiling water (!), the Turquoise Pool, and my own favorite, the Grand Prismatic Spring, which is 200 feet across. Next time I come here I want to hike on the hills above here and look down, which will provide a much better view. We saw some Elk and a Coyote, and a few more thermal features, but by this time we were both sort of worn out, and I made my way out of the park via the Western Entrance. We went over a pass and dropped down into an Idaho valley behind the Grand Tetons, and thence to the upper valley of the Snake River, and when we got to Rexburg, home of Brigham Young University Idaho, we got a room and went to Applebee's for dinner. This leg of my adventure was 206 miles.

The journey home was just a straight slog, 14 hours and 818 miles, with only lunch at a great truck stop at mile marker 71 near Boise. There was a construction bottleneck near Cle Elum, WA that added an hour to the trip. It was the longest drive I ever did without cruise control and my right leg about dropped off, but if I could drive from a point two hours from Yellowstone all the way home in autumn, I can drive all the way to Yellowstone in the summer.

I had driven across southern Idaho before several times, but always at night or under a blanket of snow, this was the first time I really saw it. The upper and lower valleys of the Snake River are separated by a very high flat plateau where Mountain Home (and the Air Force Base) lies. Between Ontario, Oregon and the "Farewell Bend" of the Snake River you traverse a totally desolate region of rounded hills, then you climb again to slide through mountains to Baker City, which sits in a vast valley. The trees return again for the first time since dropping out of the pass into Idaho from Yellowstone.

You climb a hill again and drop into the valley of the Grande Ronde River at Le Grande, then once more, you climb the notorious Cabbage Patch hill, feared by truckers, which drops you onto the absolutely flat farmland around Pendleton. It looks like a quilt, and you come down like an airplane descending. I first saw this awesome (and almost frightening) image when I was about 12, and it has always stuck with me. That is the end of the Rockies and the trees. After that, it's flat all the way to Portland.

But we left the freeway at Hermiston and crossed the Columbia River to the Tri-Cities in Washington, passing through golden hills. Coffin Road climbs these empty hills off to the right, I'd love to take it someday for the view. Then we entered the Yakima Valley and followed it all the way to Union Gap, which is where the mountains narrow to let only I-82, Route 12, a railroad, and the river through. On the other side is Yakima itself.

We climbed into the area of the US Army firing range. Of all my travels in my home state, this is by far the most desolate corner, but it has a stark beauty all its own, and the views are long. In a sort of repeat of Cabbage Patch Hill, you drop to the quilt that is the farms around Ellensburg. Mt Stuart and the north Cascades are visible, as are the trees again. From here its only a hundred miles to the Seattle area over tame little Snoqualmie Pass. And this marks the end of my documentation of my trip, which is to jog my own future memory more than anything.

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