Monday, October 29, 2007

Bison and Elk and Fox, Oh My: Yellowstone Day 2

(Be sure to read & check out the photos from my post about our first day in Yellowstone below.)

On day two we awoke, partook of the continental breakfast at the Best Western in West Yellowstone--it was sorely inadequate, the only unfortunate aspect of our stay--and once again headed into the Park. There were several cars on the road; though the day began at 25 degrees and climbed eventually on a rollercoaster track to 50, it was sunny, and the Park was filled with fly fishermen and families. Ashley and I both decided that we'd never, ever come back in the summer when the Park sees almost 3,000 visitors a day.

Once inside the Park, we headed out on the Firehole Loop, the south loop of the Park advised to us by the friendly Sudoku-playing park ranger from Friday. We followed along the Firehole and Madison Rivers, saw more waterfalls, insanely colorful and often stinky geo-thermal features, great herds of bison and elk, Old Faithful erupting to cheers of onlookers, the dizzying heights of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the blue infinity of Yellowstone Lake, volcanic mud, a couple getting married on a hill high above the winding Yellowstone River, and so many geysers hissing steam that it looked as if the world was on fire. We watched a fox on the hunt, and sunset once again take to the sky above and behind the white-capped Absaroka Range.

We ended our day at a local pizza parlor, drank wine in our hotel room and watched a crazy sci-fi flick on TV (I stayed up, a little mesmerized after living without television for 3 and 1/2 weeks), and looked at the day's photos blown up on my laptop. The next morning, thanks to my trusty Rough Guide of Yellowstone, we ate pancakes at the Running Bear Pancake House--another local favorite--filled the P.T. Cruiser up with $3.15 per gallon gasoline, and headed up Hwy 191 for Bozeman.

I'd picked that route back because the highway follows along the incredible Gallatin River, where the movie A River Runs Through It was filmed. The river, and the valley, were gorgeous, wide and flaxen, filled with red willow and embraced by steep mountains on both sides. We curled through mountain passes, took a detour to check out Big Sky and the ski resort there, and eventually made our way back to Belgrade, where the Bozeman Airport is. I dropped Ash off with time to spare, and we said goodbye to our weekend adventure.

On the way back to Basin I considered the past couple of days, and my time in southwestern Montana. Right now, the whole experience defies my descriptive and comprehensive powers. Our time in Yellowstone was breath-catching, heart-stealing, making me so proud and happy to be an American, and so hopeful that present and future generations will be able to see the value of the wild, our sacred obligation to it, and the hope involved in preserving our unique natural landscape. What glory there is in standing in a place encompassed by wilderness, and breathing it in knowing that its power lies in survival, in merely existing. I'm so thankful that I got a chance to be there.

Writing this, I'm taking a break from packing. I'll head out of Basin early tomorrow morning for the last time. I'm hopeful that after I get back from N.C., I'll eventually be able to write a post script sort of entry to the trip. Thank you all, so much, for reading along, and for supporting me with good thoughts and energy while I've been away.

God Bless Teddy... and Ulysses S. Grant (Day 1 in Yellowstone National Park)

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.