Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hellfire and Brimstone

At 3:00pm I had given up on Yellowstone. I had written it off as just another Grand Canyon experience, and had begun counting the hours until I could move down to Grand Teton.

It had been a day filled with nothing but frustration. The day had an ominous start as I hopped back on I-90 for 30 miles on the way into Yellowstone. Of those 30, 29.5 were under construction. When I say construction, I mean that half the road was closed and there was nary a construction vehicle nor a sign of any construction project in progress. And no, we do not have construction like that in the northeast. We have road work, but you will never see a 30 mile stretch of continuous interstate brought down to 1 lane.

After fighting my way into the park, my first stop was Mammoth Hot Springs. All I knew about it was that it was some sort of geothermal feature, which meant it should be cool to look at. Well, it kinda was, once I got past the veritable city surrounding it, complete with a post office, 2 gas stations, a police station, and a courthouse. The one thing that wasn’t marked on the signs was the actual location of the hot springs. Eventually, though, I found them.

It was neat, but nothing to write home about. I was expecting Yellowstone to wow me and it hadn’t yet. So, since I was driving the park’s northern loop today, I headed east towards the Lamar Valley, where I had heard there were lots of animals. However, in order to get there, I had to patiently wait behind several motorcycles that appeared to be spewing gas fumes directly into my car, numerous patches of unpaved road, and a cement mixer that was going 20 in a 45. I guess these people all came in from Montana.

When I finally managed to make it to the Lamar Valley, there were indeed animals. At first I found a small group of pronghorn (or something like that) that were eating grass. It’s very easy to spot wildlife here, because all you have to do is realize that all the cars in front of you are stopped for no reason, and look where many of the people from those cars are standing and pointing.

After the pronghorn was a herd of buffalo. Or maybe they were bison. I’m not sure. Either way, they appear to really exist. A whole bunch of them were hanging out on the other side of the Lamar River, doing all manner of buffalo things. Some were eating grass, some were kicking up dust and occasionally rolling in it, and others were charging at other buffalo.

A little later I saw a wolf.

But that was the extent of my wildlife- – or anything- – spotting this morning. For most of that time, the most interesting scenery I saw was this:

Nice, but nothing special. I was actually beginning to wonder what was so special about this place that it was even set aside as a national park. Most of what I was seeing looked like this:

The above traffic jam lasted over 30 minutes and covered about a half mile of road. That was the last straw. I had had it. I was beyond frustrated. I was ready to roll down the window and start screaming at the idiot drivers around me.

But then things changed.

As I got closer to the front of the traffic jam, I realized it was another wildlife-related incident. When a woman got out of her car and was told by a ranger to stay behind a certain point in the road, I had a feeling I knew what animal we were dealing with.

It was a grizzly bear.

He wasn’t doing much, other than digging around for something (not salmon, I assume), and he was at least 200 yards away. This, I decided, was the perfect distance to be from a grizzly bear. If he decided to charge me at full speed, I could probably get into my car before he reached me.

With concern over being mauled no longer an issue, it was pretty cool to see a real grizzly bear “up close.” I’d seen black bears eating out of dumpsters all the time, but there are no grizzlies where I come from, and I’d always thought of them as the king of bears (not to be confused with Budweiser – the king of beers). Maybe my day was starting to turn.

From there, I checked into my campsite, which I had reserved this time (a first for this trip. All the rest have been walk-in sites). In my opinion, my site, campsite H152 at the Canyon Campground, is the best one here. It’s right off the main road so I don’t have to bother with any of that one-way loop road nonsense and can just back right out onto the 2-way road. It’s across the street from the bathrooms, which means I barely have to schlep water, garbage, or anything. It’s also nice and compact, which lets me stretch the computer’s power cord all the way from the car into the tent – a nice ability since it’s thundering out right now. There’s also an automatic ice machine on the way out, which will definitely come in handy.

Once I was settled in, I headed to my next stop – the Norris Geyser Basin. I decided I wasn’t going to stop at all on the road there, because just about every unplanned stop I had made today had been a waste of time.

At Norris, things really started getting interesting. This was one of the strangest landscapes I had ever seen. A vast open area that looked a little like a field, but with colors and patterns I’d never seen before. There were random pools of colored water dotted between several plumes of steam. To top it off, the whole place smelled of sulfur, giving me a craving for hard boiled eggs by the time I left.

Apparently none of the geysers I saw were erupting at the time, but you could have fooled me. Many of them were bubbling, belching, or occasionally throwing water a few feet in the air. Each one was more otherworldly than the next.

The trail took me past Steamboat Geyser, which erupts with a higher jet of water than any other geyser in the world (300-400 feet). Unfortunately, it hasn’t erupted since 2005. Like I said, a very strange place.

On my way back I decided to explore the Canyon area a little bit. It’s named for the nearby Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, marked by colorful canyon walls and the famous Yellowstone Falls at one end. There are several overlooks on both sides of the river and I decided to see them all. After this morning, when I stumble upon something good to see here, I’m going to take full advantage of it.

First was “The Brink of the Upper Falls” which takes you right up to the water as it rushes downstream. This is no Merced River. This thing is a torrent. Watching the immense volume and speed of the water as it roared past me literally made me dizzy.

Then I drove down the canyon a little further to a view of the lower falls, the more famous part. Here you got the classic view of the entire canyon and the falls. There, there was a fork in the trail with one side leading down a steep path from the overlook to another viewpoint that was several hundred feet lower. I figured I hadn’t done anything too strenuous today, so I decided to give the 3/8 of a mile trail a try. Well, in those 3/8 miles the trail contained 111 stairs and 8 switchbacks. Going down was a breeze. Coming up, I earned myself a good dinner.

And that’s a good thing, because I had a real gourmet meal planned for this evening. Not Samuel L. Jackson Royale with Cheese gourmet, but real pretentious overpriced gourmet. Before leaving Washington yesterday, I bought a fillet of sockeye salmon (because you can’t go to the Pacific Northwest without having salmon). I decided tonight I would throw a piece in a foil pouch with some lemon and dill and just toss it in the fire. Maybe I’d wrap a potato in foil (I made sure to get a couple of potatoes in Idaho) and throw it in there too. It all worked perfectly. Since wood fires aren’t as hot as the charcoal fires I make at home, the fish cooked slower than I expected so I didn’t even come close to burning it. The potato did what I always expect from baked potatoes – cook for a half hour right in the center of the fire, and then when I think it must be burned already, be only halfway done.

So that was my rollercoaster of a day. After this afternoon, though, I have hope that tomorrow will bring some interesting things and that I won’t have to declare the world’s first national park dead to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment