Sunday, August 21, 2016



Prior to this month, I hadn’t taken a vacation in two years.  It was time.

When we lived in New England, we made a point to take a week each summer to take a vacation in one of the New England states.  (TW’s fave was Maine, but I was partial to Vermont.)  Last year we didn’t get a vacation, with the summer consumed by moving.  So this year we doubled down and did a massive trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

None of us had ever been to either, so it was a bit of a leap of faith.

The kids, bless their young hearts, looked forward to flying.  Our New England trips didn’t require it, and they hadn’t flown recently enough to remember it.  We made sure to get them window seats.

A few thoughts and observations on Yellowstone and the Tetons:

If you ask most people to name a landmark at Yellowstone, they’ll name Old Faithful.  We saw Old Faithful, but it wasn’t all that interesting; as one nearby onlooker put it, “we came all this way to see...steam?”  The Grand Prismatic Spring, on the other hand, is worth it.  It’s sort of a cross between a mall wishing well and a portal to hell.  It’s an otherworldly blend of colors with a sulfurous steam on top from which you don’t want to be downwind.  (Trust me on that one.)   It features shades of orange and blue that don’t usually occur together, especially in nature.  The water is supposed to be highly acidic, which explains the colors along the sides.  It’s crossed by a series of narrow pedestrian walkways that don’t forgive much; we were collectively mystified as to how those walkways even got built.  (“I’ll just put this heAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!”)  

Moose were mostly missing, but the bison were out in force.  Several times we had to stop and wait for them to cross the road directly in front of us.  One bison took up shop just outside our hotel room -- we were alerted by the sound of grass ripping from the ground as he ate it.  We named him Bernie.  Bernie hung around for a couple of days before moving on.  TG bought a stuffed Bernie to commemorate the trip.  He joined the menagerie in her room, apparently without incident.

We did an hour-long horseback ride, during which we collectively discovered that “saddlesore” is a real thing.  And that’s all I’ll say about that.

We set the alarm for 1:00 one morning to catch the Perseid meteor shower.  Living in New Jersey, light pollution, trees, and buildings reduce the quality of stargazing, but out there, you can really see a show.  We were concerned when it rained early in the evening, but the weather cleared in time for a perfect view of the meteors.  And they didn’t disappoint.  It was weirdly cold at night, and you’d be surprised how quickly your neck can start to hurt from craning it backwards to look up.  But the meteors with tails were worth it.  I even saw the Milky Way for the first time.  It was one of those rare and cherished moments in the overlapping part of the Venn diagram covered by both “nerdy” and “cool.”

The food in the park of an earlier time.  The cafeteria featured variations on shrink wrap.  

Pro tip: if you tell a 15 year old boy the translation of “Grand Tetons,” be prepared for two solid days of giggling.  Just roll with it.

Apparently -- and I consider this a sign of the Decline of the West -- other people aren’t nearly as fascinated as I am by the fact that Evel Knievel once tried to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle.  We took a rafting trip on the Snake River, and when I asked the guide about it, he brushed it off with a curt “that was in Idaho” before changing the subject.  Even TW and the kids rolled their eyes!  Idaho, Wyoming, whatever -- it was a Rocket. Powered. Motorcycle.  

Sigh.  Without Evel Knievel, would Gonzo the Great have even existed?  Nobody appreciates the classics.  But I digress.

The eastern side of the Tetons lacks foothills, which makes for a striking visual.  The real issue there was parking, which was weirdly scarce, considering that we were in Wyoming.  You’d think the one thing that wouldn’t be lacking in Wyoming would be parking.  Alas, no.  But once we found spaces, the hiking was glorious.  Highly recommended.  

We met a couple from northern Iowa on the rafting trip; they called themselves “simple farm folk.”  (Seriously.  That’s a direct quote.)  When I mentioned our meteor shower adventure and how much bigger the sky seemed here, the woman from the couple mentioned that she felt confined there by having mountains on either side.  She was used to being able to see clear to the horizon.  She was also amused by my reference to Jackson Hole as “small.”  She found it intimidatingly large.  Perspective, I guess.

We spent the last night in Bozeman, Montana, which is a pretty artsy place.  It had a “music night” downtown while we were there, so we checked it out.  I was charmed by the banner for “The Green Coalition of Gay Loggers for Jesus.”  It turned out to be a sort of bait; anyone who took a picture of the banner got hit up for a contribution to the local food bank.  I considered it a fair exchange.

The kids discovered that views from airplanes can be great fun, but that air travel as an experience can be a bit of a nightmare.  By the last leg of the journey home, TG announced that she was done with flying for a while.  We all agreed.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog, and regularly scheduled job.  It’s time.

Sounds like a great vacation! Back in 1996, my wife and I drove a used car from Michigan to California to deliver it to her sister. Our payment was the ancient Toyota Tercel that the new-used car was replacing. We were grad students, so it was a good deal. We camped along the way, including a couple nights in Yellowstone. I agree that Old Faithful didn't live up to the hype. It was nice to watch from the lodge, but we had hiked out to the Lone Star geyser that morning, which gave a much better show.

A couple of my most vivid memories, though, involve bison. One evening, after our camp dinner, we decided to walk to the pay phone in the campground to call home. This was before ordinary mortals had cell phones, even if there was service in the park. But our way was blocked by a big bull bison who was not inclined to move. We decided to return to our tent and call home the next day.

And then, the next day, as we left the park, we came upon a traffic jam as a small herd of bison crossed the road. Despite the dire warnings everyone received on entering the park, several idiots got out of their cars and walked up to the bison for a photo op. I wouldn't wish harm on anyone, but had one of them been gored I wouldn't have shed many tears. Idiots.
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About 10 years ago now, I did a bike trip in Yellowstone. When we saw bison on the road, we were supposed to get a car between the bison and ourselves. When you're on a bike, the bison are even bigger! I never wanted to go anywhere so much as behind a car!

Glad you had a good trip. I have fantasies of retiring and living in different places for a year, and Bozeman is at the top of my list.
Yes, those French trappers must have been longing for home by the time they got to the Western part of Wyoming.
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Glad you enjoyed your trip out to my old home state. Ironically, many Wyoming residents don't spend much time in the Jackson-Teton-Yellowstone area; the combination of tourists and accompanying high prices may have something to do with that. But it's a glorious place; after one sees Yellowstone, other landscapes seem just a little smaller, a little plainer.

For a taste of the Jackson that was, you might enjoy reading Donald Hough's "The Cocktail Hour in Jackson Hole." Hough wintered in Jackson at some point in the late 1930s and spun his experiences into a trio of movie scripts for Hal Roach studios, as well as this book (which appeared in 1956. The "cocktail hour" was the time after the dude ranches closed down in the fall--and, at least if one believes Hough, just about everyone up there hunkered down, enjoyed the quiet and kept blood levels of "antifreeze" high.

I take a break from blog-reading only to see you visit my home state.

Glad you enjoyed Yellowstone! Did you see the Yellowstone Grand Canyon?

If you ever go back, I also recommend a visit to Cody, WY. Also kind of artsy, and the city was started by Buffalo Bill.

And, nearby (30 min drive? north-east) to Cody was the Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp--not many buildings are left (though it's apparently one of the better preserved ones with only three...) but the museum at the site is worth a visit, as is the cognitive dissonance of having one of our country's darker moments in such a beautiful place.
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