Sunday, August 9, 2009


I love the smell of Tetons in the morning...

Oh what a beauuuuutiful Moooooorrrrniiinnng! (Rogers and Hammerstein...anyone...anyone?).

I got up early to catch the morning sun. It was a couple of hundred yards from the cabin through the surprising chill of the morning to the observation area in front of the lodge. Shorts and sandals were a bad choice but it was too late.
Coming around the corner into full view of the morning, the Tetons seemed close enough to touch.

The sun, still low on the eastern horizon, illuminated the mountains in pastel shades of pink, blue and orange framed by the green and yellow meadow below and luminescent blue sky above. A thin band of low clouds hovered broken half way up the mountains, providing an even more breathtaking spectacle. This truly is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

After a bountiful breakfast at the Pioneer Grill, a cool retro diner located in the lodge and decorated with historic photos of the park, it was time to head north for an early visit to nearby Yellowstone National Park, ostensibly to beat the crowds. No sooner had I joyfully hit the road when my enthusiasm was instantly quashed by signs of impending doom. Road work next 45 miles the temporary orange sign read. 45 MILES? Are you kidding me? That was well into the park! Well, perhaps it was as simple as a closed shoulder here, a pothole there. They wouldn't do major work during absolute peak tourist season, I reasoned, as I approached a line of stopped cars.

I couldn't see him, but I knew my nemesis the sign bearer was somewhere up ahead at the front of the line of stationary cars, holding his red STOP sign, chewing and laughing. How could they, I thought. I mean, the road from the Tetons to Yellowstone? IN LATE JULY? Didn't they know I was going to be traveling here today? I turned the engine off and waited in disgust as the minutes ticked by.

Eventually, the usual line of refugees began to pass by from the other side. Five minutes or so later, I could see movement up ahead and started up the engine. I cast a wary eye at the sign bearer as I slowly passed. He seemed quite affable, bearded and waving at bright faced youngsters who waved back from station wagons, SUV's, RV's and sedans. Of course, I hated him nonetheless.

Being near the back of the line, I couldn't see much beyond the ass-end of the mid-size SUV immediately ahead with Utah plates. Once again, the ubiquitous machines of highway destruction and rebuilding hovered about ominously as we made our way through the construction zone at speeds approaching 10 miles an hour.

OK, I thought, as we emerged past the small white pickup with the flashing yellow light on top, getting ready to take the next band of refugees through the other direction. Perhaps that was the worst, and if so, a 45 minute delay to our ultimate destination is no big deal. An hour and a half later, I plodded along behind a line of cars doing 20 mph through the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, normally a half hour drive.

I had come too far to turn back, but was now in such a dour mood I couldn't possibly imagine enjoying the park.
I had almost decided to go the other way through the park loop to avoid the mind-numbing traffic jams (DAMN YOU AMERICAN RECOVERY AND REINVESTMENT ACT!). Luckily, after a quick, pressure relieving pit-stop along the shores of one of the park's serene lakes, I decided to continue towards Old Faithful and the major park sights.

Traffic had lightened, the scenery was beautiful, and I quickly adjusted to a quasi-normal state of mind, more or less.
My heart beat faster as the famed Old Faithful approached. I had never before experienced this icon of American tourism and looked forward to walking the nearby boardwalks to peer down through colorful geysers into the bowels of the earth.

I could see columns of steamy mist rising through the trees and my excitement grew as the road widened to four lanes.
As I entered the Old Faithful parking lot however, pristine wilderness instantly gave way to vast and paved tourist wasteland.

Tour buses and RV's jammed in around acres of parked cars and SUV's. Crushing throngs of enthusiasts from the world over poured from the parking lot into a distinctly unpicturesque collection of buildings bordered by new construction (what more could they possibly be building?). The whole thing seemed distinctly out of place.

After passing through a mobbed main street of souvenir stores and overpriced eateries housed in oversize rust red clapboard structures, I came to the comparatively small ranger station stationed midway between the more beautiful and historic Old Faithful Inn and Old Faithful Lodge. Between the awarding of "Yellowstone Junior Rangers" patches to hoards of screaming kids, I was able to push close enough to a ranger to find out that the next performance of Old Faithful was expected in approximately one hour, give or take ten minutes.

Escaping back out into the light of day I made my way over to the steaming cauldron. Metal benches 5-deep lined the parking lot side of the geyser. People were already sitting down to secure a good view of this natural display, still an hour away. I escaped to the relative solitude of the boardwalks. These interesting footpaths lead around Old Faithful to other smoldering geysers and boiling cauldrons in the immediate vicinity, providing interesting and welcome relief from the heaving mass of humanity near the entrance.

Above Left:
Old Faithful, third seating. Above Right: Old Faithful, third showing.
Below Left: Historic Old Faithful Inn. Below Right: Historic OFI Lobby.

As show time approached, I headed back near the entrance to experience the full majesty and magnitude of the main event. With just ten minutes to go, the benches were packed. Behind them stood lines of spectators four and five deep, the level 200 yard walk from the parking lot being the most exercise many of them had apparently had in years.

Every twenty or thirty seconds the famed geyser would warm up, spitting steaming surges a few feet in the air, each eliciting a roar of exaltation from the crowd. A half mile down the valley, a huge geyser burst into the sky, sending boiling water one hundred feet into the afternoon air with an loud hiss. The crowd swooned with delight. A minute or two later, another geyser just 200 yards away across the creek and behind a small berm burst into the sky, the two together sending huge arching plumes high into the deep blue sky.

Taking in these events, even your humble, jaded Booktraveler began to palpitate for the Main Event. There was no doubt that Old Faithful would put these nearby interlopers to shame. The hissing and gurgling became more pronounced. The steaming spit rising higher and more frequent, each causing the crowd to lifted their cameras in unison. At last the roiling cauldron erupted with a searing hiss into the sky.

The initial five to ten second burst shot up fifty or sixty feet. This was going to be good! It then immediately died down to about thirty feet where it hissed flaccidly a minute or two before dying back down to a steaming hole. The more virile geysers were still gushing in the distance with high, proud arches. I have to admit, I empathized with Old Faithful.

After a quick murmur of disappointment, the crowd dispatched faster than an alcohol-free wedding. I headed to the venerable Old Faithful Inn for a Martini and sandwich before heading out to see the rest of the park. Once free of the Old Faithful "Historic District", the park quickly reverted to its natural splendor.

Firehole Lake

I continued on, stopping to view the Midway Geyser Basin, the Hollywood-style boiling mud pools of Fountain Paint Pot, and the varied and interesting sights along the even more interestingly named Firehole Lake Drive. Yellowstone is a huge and ancient volcanic caldera. The hissing, steaming, roiling and boiling sights along the inner loop highway drive this point home beautifully.

The distinctly western landscape provides an extraordinary backdrop to these subterranean spectacles, with low, pine-covered mountains ringing expansive meadows and lush river valleys. Majestic Elk and the gigantic American Bison can be seen grazing the golden plains.

The Locals

Approaching the turnoff where the Firehole and Gibbon rivers converge to form the Madison River, I took a left and headed toward the west entrance of the park, through the beautiful Madison River Canyon to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside the park. This distinctly touristy but subdued town is home to the Bookworm, an extraordinary new and used book indie that is most definitely one of a kind.

West Yellowstone, MT

This decades old stalwart carries a tremendous selection of Yellowstone memorabilia dating from the 1880s through the 1950s, along with thousands of Haynes postcards. They feature an extraordinary collection of local interest titles, along with a great selection of rare and first editions, many signed by the author.

The Bookworm, West Yellowstone, MT

Their 50,000 plus titles of new and used books is complimented by an extraordinarily cool local decor with lots of western/Yellowstone related pictures, posters and knickknacks. It's a great way to top off an afternoon, with plenty of colorful eateries and drinkeries nearby.

After a quick pit stop to imbibe a local microbrew, I retraced my steps back through the park, enjoying the steaming splendors through the prism of the late afternoon sun. I was so tired and spent by the time I did the return death march through the 45 mile construction site back to Jackson Lake Lodge, I waved a polite thank you to the sign bearer when he waved me through, turning his STOP to SLOW. This was met with a contemptuous spit of sunflower seed husks into the dirt.

Next Post: The Bear Essentials, Jackson Hole and a Pilgrimage to the Land of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Until then


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