Yellowstone National Park is definitely not seen in its incredible entirety in a two-day trip, but we sure as heck tried.
I picked my friend Ashley up at the Bozeman airport on Thursday. Her plane arrived early, and she'd exited with several fly-fishermen, all heading to southwestern Montana and the cinematic scope of the rivers here, to enjoy a last Fall weekend. We threw her bags in the P.T. Cruiser and took off up Hwy 15 towards Butte, through the golden hills. Ash is a talker (as am I), and I kept wanting to point out the rock formations and quarterhorses and cattle like an over-exuberant mother, urging, "Look, look--we're HERE." (Mom and Dad: think our first trip to Alaska, when y'all were trying to get Cal and me to get our noses out of books.)
After a quick trip through the historic uptown of sometimes sadly unattractive Butte, we took again to the road and for Basin, passing the former frontier settlements along the valley way and the now burnished red willow in the riverbottoms: these daily, ephemeral sights that I know will stay lodged in my memory, though I'll leave them soon. I introduced Ash to my friend Kate, then had to say goodbye to the latter: Kate had to leave early, on Saturday, to head back to Massachusetts for work. I handed Kate a CD of photos from our travels, hoping that my smile conveyed just how much fun I'd had with her these last weeks, how nice and easy it was to be in her presence, and how I'd truly enjoyed sharing the adventure. I know that we'll keep in touch, and I hope to see Kate again--maybe even convince her to come experience a future weekend in the Deep South.
After introducing Ash to one of my favorite Basin dogs, a street-vagabond who's a mix of St. Bernard and something else, who hasn't a name on his collar, we went to Helena for dinner. We ate at the Windbag, a former brothel/boxing venue/bowling alley where we drank local beer and people-watched. Then it was back to Basin, where Ash lived through sleeping with me in the tiny loft bed after bumping her head on the ceiling (it brushes the top of my head, and Ash is 5'8") and dealing with my alleged snoring (she did purposely steal both good, firm pillows before I got up there: punk). The next morning, we took to the open road, heading up to Boulder, where we navigated normally lovely Hwy 69 all the way to Whitehall (in a white-out sort of snow craziness behind a slow 18-wheeler who kicked up gravel). I hated for Ash to miss the views of the mountains and long, glacial-carved valley on either side, but we did see some antelope grazing through the fog and plenty of horses.
We hit Hwy 41 to Hwy 287, stopping by the stuck-in-time "ghost" towns of Nevada and Virginia Cities (I use the quotes here because Virginia City is halfway inhabited, and we stopped there to shop). We stopped in the quaint little town of Ennis, which I'd read about in novels, had lunch at the Pharmacy--a place recommended to us by a store proprietoress--with a room full of locals (great food). After sating our stomachs, it was off to the south, and towards West Yellowstone along Hwy 287 and the wide Madison River, with the Beaverhead and Gallatin National Forests on either side. The ranch land here is wide, separated by fenceline and peppered with cattle and homesites (looks like much of the land around Ennis is being chopped up and sold in mini-ranch lots to the highest bidders... mostly rich, California Hollywood types, according to the locals). Soon the white-capped peaks to our right and south began to emerge from clouds and into daylight.
A nice kid at the Best Western Desert Inn in West Yellowstone checked us in, stocking us with extra shampoo and conditioner. Our first stop was the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, where we saw the bears and wolves kept there. Despite the obvious (and necessary) somewhat domestication of these animals, I still got a flash of goosebumps along my spine watching the wolves lie in the sun. There's something so familiar about their cock of brawny head, about the the keen intelligence in their eyes... and I am convinced, once again, that we humans are more connected to these creatures than we realize.
We headed into the Park, despite the lateness of the day, after a conversation with a knowledgeable ranger at the Visitors' Center--we interrupted his Sudoku game--planning out our route for the next day. Once inside the Park, we took the road up towards Mammoth, checking out waterfalls, bison in flaxen valleys along flashing cobalt rivers, and a herd of elk grazing quietly roadside. On our way back to West Yellowstone, we watched the sun sink over the peaked and white-capped Absaroka Range, far away against a thick forest of green-black lodgepole pines. The pink-gold light cast the mountains in stark relief, gilding the snow and making it all seem as if something out of a dream. I spent much of the drive back shaking my head and clearing my throat, uttering inanities like "gorgeous," "oh, my goodness," and "wow." Before the weekend was out I'd add "holy crap" and "dear lord" to my expanding vocabulary (sorry Mom... not a good combo).
We ate dinner at Bullwinkle's Bar and Saloon, and like everywhere else I've been in this great state, the service was excellent: friendly, helpful and kind. The bar was chock-full of fly fishermen, and we'd see them the next morning leave our hotel in the frigid dark, and later shin-deep in the icy rivers of the park, casting lines against a glistening backdrop of frosted field, grey cliffside and grazing giant elk.
A post from Day 2 will come later... when, I'm not sure. Today I'm packing up my Montana life, for I depart from Bozeman tomorrow around 11 a.m. I may have to take one last trip to Helena before the day's out, to buy packing tape and to just watch the skyline one last time.
P.S. To explain the title of the post... I thanked Teddy (aka Roosevelt, one of my all-time favorite American presidents) because he started the whole conservation-park thing. Grant, despite being one of the scourges of the South and a good general, but not a very good president all-together, signed the bill that made Yellowstone a national park.