Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Long And Winding Road

On the plane from Billings to Denver. It's very crowded, lots of squawking babies. Mmmm, my favorite. Luckily, it's not a long flight.

We had a decent night at the Billings Crowne Plaza, “the tallest free-standing brick building in the world.” How's that for bragging rights? It had really nice QUEEN beds. And free wi-fi. The best part (in Jarrah's world) was the flat-screen TV. She screamed “YAY!” at the top of her lungs and did a little happy dance when we opened the door. This same kid refused to even LOOK UP from her iTouch game when a bison practically stuck his nose in her window.

We didn't see much of Billings because we didn't get there until after 8:00. We had dinner downtown at The Soup Place, which was absolutely delightful and had the yummiest food, including maybe the best chicken noodle soup I've ever had (barring the stuff my friend Beth made me after my surgery in 2003. Let's give credit where credit is due.) Our waiter was an adorable self-described “Montana boy” who blushed with pleasure when I complimented the soup, and chit-chatted with us a bit about the local wildlife. He said that occasionally bears can be seen strolling the streets of Billings, looking for snacks. No offense, Billings, but calling all bears: You can do better in Yellowstone.

Lots of driving yesterday. We knew that was going to happen, but still. We drove (and stopped) all day in the park, and finally programmed the GPS for Billings about 5:00 p.m. Three hours! The first stretch, to Livingston, was gorgeous, with snow-capped mountains, and fields of cows and horses (and what I thought were gazelles—Cute Waiter said they would have been antelope.) I kept yelling “The sky is HUGE here!” just because I know it annoys David when I claim Montana truly is Big Sky Country. But that's what I believe, and he's not going to talk me out of it.

From Livingston, the road was dark and dull, and I was driving. Shortly before Billings, we started to see lights, which turned out to be refineries, spewing smoke into the pristine air. From the 20th floor of the Crowne Plaza, it was clear that refineries of various sorts are the main attraction in Billings. David told me that this morning when Jarrah opened the curtains, she crowed “Look, Daddy! GEYSERS!” Hee.

I was a bit agitated when the day began. We'd been told we'd need a ranger escort to travel from West Thumb to Lake, due to a recent fire in that area. The first posted opportunity was 6-8, which was out of the question, but the next was 12-1, which seemed like a late-ish start, particularly since we had to back-track due to another road closure. And we were hoping the Geyser Gods would grace us with a full showing of Old Faithful, since we had yet to experience that. I was nervous about getting to West Thumb in time, thinking we'd be trapped in Yellowstone forever otherwise.

After breakfast, we felicitously wandered into the middle of the Old Faithful Inn tour, and though Jarrah was the only kid on it, she was surprisingly well-behaved. Our tour guide was extremely knowledgeable, having written the only biography of Robert Reamer, the inn's architect, and I really liked her style. Having done my own research on 19th century American tourism, I liked seeing one of the original rooms (no plumbing, of course, and log walls) and learning about the wealthy early guests who all sat down to dinner together, and danced in the lobby after. I was glad we were able to squeeze in this little history lesson.

After, we were able to pack the car and run outside in time for Old Faithful, and we even got a front-row seat (yes, there are seats.) And sure enough, it went off only 4 minutes after the predicted time. It shoots for less than a minute, making it maybe the world's shortest show, but it was awfully cool. It felt right to conclude our stay this way—minutes later, we were checked out and on the road to West Thumb.

And for all my hand-wringing, the timing was a non-issue. We sailed through the junction at West Thumb and soon were hugging Lake Yellowstone on our way north. A bunch of people were stopped on the roadside and—knowing the drill now—we joined them. OMIGOD! A bald eagle at the top of the tree! Seriously, I have never seen one before, and I was in awe. We stayed until it flew away, and then continued on to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel.

I wanted to stop there for two reasons: one, I'd read it was the only dining room still open in the park (except for ours) and two, the hotel is even older than Old Faithful, putting it architecturally in the same period as the Catskills resorts that I've studied. Sure enough, it was a very Victorian yellow wood building with a wide, sweeping veranda, and the dining room was light and airy, perfect for people-watching. We enjoyed our lunch—the best of the trip, in my opinion. My sandwich was grilled organic cheddar, slivers of Granny Smith, watercress and curry butter on cracked wheat. Oh, I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it.

Next we continued north to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I was a little skeptical about the grandness, since I've seen the one in Arizona, and another in Kauai. But this one did not disappoint. I think it was the most beautiful scenery we saw in Yellowstone, and that's saying something. Because of Jarrah's aversion to hiking, we didn't try any of the trails, but we did take a short walk off of North Rim Dr. (a loop road) to observation decks at Grand View, Lower Falls and Inspiration Point. At Inspiration Point, you descend some stairs and stand on a deck over the canyon, which actually feels pretty safe. What did not seem safe was looking across the canyon (which feels vertiginous even to the eyes) and spotting a tiny, rickety-looking staircase built into the cliff, with ant-like people standing at the end of it. It made me shiver just to look at them. At the bottom of the canyon, stained orange and red from the geyser bacterial deposits (that sounds icky, but bacteria is the reason for the striking colors in Yellowstone phenomena), a turquoise river runs through it. I would have been happy to hike around there all afternoon, but the road called.

Back in the car, we wended our way through the Norris Geyser Basin without stopping, but now started to spot the wildlife we were beginning to think everyone else was making up. We saw several clusters of bison, and at least two only a couple feet from the road. I remarked that they looked incredibly healthy, all clean and fluffy and plump, which I guess is what happens when you have a whole National Park to yourself. We saw the back of a retreating wolf, too, by following the photogs. We saw a couple herds of elk. I thought I saw a black bear down by a river, but it was on the other side—could have been a thirsty bison. In any case, we became hyper-alert to the roadside as we drove, expecting new delights around every corner.

Eventually we reached Mammoth Hot Springs, the last settlement in Yellowstone (by the north entrance) where we'd been told that the geothermal attractions were like no other. I'm not sure if I was jaded by this point or what, but a short stroll and a slightly longer loop road (more like a path that barely fit our car) failed to excite me (and believe me, I'm easily excited.) A lot of the terrain seemed white and ashy, like a recent fire site, but we only saw a few patches of the crystal-like terraces, weeping with color. I was puzzling over why all the guidebooks describe this spot as a must-see as we headed down a little hill into the town of Mammoth Springs, and here I fell in love again, just as I'd done in West Yellowstone, only for different reasons.

Mammoth Springs contains a hotel, some cabins, a visitor center, a restaurant and precious little else, but the whole collection is arranged prettily around a big lawn and nestled into a tiny valley between mountains. The buildings are Victorian style (I think faux-Victorian, but still) and in the middle of it all? A large herd of elk, strolling and lounging between the buildings, only inches away from the folks snapping their pictures. One large buck with the most amazing antlers actually seemed to be posing, turning slightly so we could get him from different angles. I told David I could imagine staying there sometime, which I think he found odd of me.

I felt wistful about driving out of the park, but it was time. It was only five miles to the northern entrance at Gardiner, Montana, another wild-west town, but not as homey (in my limited exposure from the car) as West Yellowstone. I was mighty curious about the folks we saw congregating—in swimsuits!--down at “Lava Creek” as we drove away from Mammoth. Since it was only in the '40s outside, I can only imagine that the creek must be bubbling with warmth. Perhaps we'll find out on another trip.


Myrnie said...

Sounds like an amazing trip.

And...come up here. You'll see bald eagles! They think the salmon are mighty tasty... :)

Jen said...

Wow--GREAT pix! Love them. It looks like you all had a wonderful time.

And yeah! We've got eagles here, too, and moose, and blueberries--you better come visit! ;-)

Miss J

erin said...

It looks amazing. Jeremiah and I are always talking about where we should go next, I've been all over Europe and The South of this country, he's been to The West and Mexico...so the Western North is the next place, I guess.

Oh and neither one of us has been to Great Britain...ironic considering mine AND Jeremiah's great grandfather and great grandmother were born there and moved here after getting married...isn't that weird?

I've also never been to Asia...but for some reason it seems too far away...

Looks like you guys had an excellent trip. I've had an only child twice in my life (once with Rose and now 3 days a week with Elijah) and there's something special about the bond there. And it's quieter. :D