Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Road Trip: Days One and Two

This is a long one, with a fair number of pictures.


Below: The early-morning sun shining over the Cascade Mountains, about a half-hour into the first day of the road trip.

After the glory of the mountains, most of the morning was in Central and Eastern Washington, which is all brown and scrubby. Dad and I passed the time discussing education and trivia. Around midday we'd gotten into the boonies of Idaho (no, you da ho. ha ha!), increasing our altitude to 4,000-6,000 feet, and back in the forested mountains.

We stopped for lunch in Kellogg, a tiny old silver mining town. The restaurant in the ski resort base was called Terrible Edith's ("Shut up and eat!"). The resort used to be called Jackass. Yep, really.

All afternoon was taken up driving in Montana. Montana is not very exciting. It's not exactly scrubby, but it's not lush either. Some crops, some cattle, but lots of empty expanse of land. And some mountainous areas too. In fact, we drove right through the wildfires. I even saw the water helicopter flying around between the mountain and the river. And thankfully, the fire wasn't raging or anything, there was a lot of smoke but I only saw two places with flames burning. Weird.

At seven, we pulled into Bozeman. We went to Main Street, which had a very cute, old-fashioned, small-town feel to it. Dinner at a local pizzaria, which happened to be full of cute college boys. Whee!


Day Two was much more interesting.

Left Bozeman at 6.30 in the morning. I snoozed in the car as we approached Yellowstone National Park (and Wyoming), at around eight.

Yellowstone is a huge park and has a limited road system, to help preserve the nature. There are four entrances, and the road is shaped like a figure eight. We drove into the park from the north entrance, down the left...arm? of the eight, across the middle, and down the right arm and out the south entrance. Altogether we were in the park about four hours.

First stop was the sulfur spring terraces. Stinky but gorgeous in an alien-world way. Then the sulfur/mud flats. We visited the Dragon's Mouth, and it lived up to its name, I tell you. Scary grunting and booming from a pond splashing into a cave.

Second stop was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and the Lower Falls. Gorgeous panoramic scenery!

Driving along the road, we saw a bunch of cars parked haphazardly on the shoulder. Animal sighting! We crept into the woods and saw a huge bull elk, just chilling on the forest floor. We were ten feet away from him, and he just sat there, practically a statue. It was incredible, though also nerve-wracking. Obviously.

A bit later, we cruised on down the road, eating the leftover pizza, when I suddenly choked, "Holy shit!"
A family group of buffalo (well, actually, in America we have bison, which apparently is not the same animal as a buffalo. But pretty damn close, if you ask me. Which you would, seeing as how I'm a biologist and stuff. *eye roll* Sometimes I should just shut up.) was standing around about five feet off the road. We pulled over and walked as close as we dared--about thirty feet. (My dad explained that buffalo are really near-sighted, which is why the dumbfucks get really close to the animal before it gores the hell out of them.)

After that excitement, we continued on. A few miles later, the territory opened up to a plain home to a small herd of bison. (All those dots) Can you imagine what the Great Plains of the Midwest once looked like, with herds of buffalo numbering in the tens of thousands? Damn those destructive white people.

As they do, the herd had no care to notice a strip of tar running through their land, so they hung out on it and right next to it.

So here I am, standing on the shoulder on one side. And there are a bunch of buffalo, right on the other shoulder. There were others on our same side, too. Notice that look on my face, and how it's not a beaming smile? Yeah. That's called a nervous grimace. They were crossing the road at will, rushing each other, and generally ignoring all the quiet commotion of a crapload of tourists looking and snapping pictures. We crazy.

Though I'm pretty proud of this particular pic I snapped:

It's one of the buffalo on our side of the road. See its raised tail? Look closely. Yep, it's taking a piss. This is a picture of a peeing bison. Awesome, no?

Now, I ended up around ten buffalo pictures altogether, from the two places we saw them, and that's pretty good. On the last road trip in Yellowstone in the mid-90s, we ended up with nearly a whole roll of the damn things. We were so in awe that we just kept firing our various cameras. When the prints arrived, we shook our heads and laughed, why the hell did we take so many pictures of the goddamn buffalo? We never need to see another one!

So I was proud of my restraint. :)

Half a mile up the road, there was a huge group of both cars and people, up on a hillside. We hoped that we'd see either a bear or a moose, to make our day a triple-hit of big-ass animals. Sadly, we'd missed the black bear by about a half-hour; it had been feeding on a bison carcass.

In 1988, more than half the park was ravaged by wildfires. As my dad explained, the firefighting policy has totally turned around since the 60s and 70s. He worked there as a college kid for a summer, fighting fires and keeping up the park. Back then, they fought and contained every single fire, to protect the forests. Eventually the botanists or whoever realized or remembered that wildfire is a natural phenomenon that actually does some good to the affected areas. So after that they always let wildfires burn themselves out, though making sure to protect any campsites or staff housing, I'm sure.

So the '88 fire went on and on, eventually getting too big to control once they realized it was totally out of control. Whole sections of the park were burned and totally barren. That summer, my dad, brother (five) and I (about eight) took a road trip to Yellowstone. All we saw in certain places were dead, burned trees.

We drove through those same areas on our trip; I recognized the mountains and vistas. The dead trunks still stand, but growing up all around and among them is a new growth of evergreen trees. A lot of them. Looks like a Christmas tree farm, in fact.

The point is that nature really does do things in a cycle, and nothing really dies. (As long as us dumb humans don't kill all of something, as we're apt to do.) It was beautiful and inspiring. The circle of life goes on.

From there, we drove around the lake, admiring the view. Soon we exited the park, and soon after that we entered the Grand Teton National Park. That one is not quite so organized. There aren't signs or trails or anything, you mostly drive through. There's lots of campsites, and I'm sure a great deal of hiking to do. But it's more of an independent park. No entrance fee, no fancy brochure or anything.

The weather was not ideal for viewing the mountains and the lakes; it was fairly cloudy and gray. Boo. Even so, the scenery is still impressive.

Around three, we finally arrived in Jackson, Wyoming. The clouds at Jenny Lake (left) had grown into a huge storm that was right behind us. Not two minutes after getting into town, the sky opened up, with a deluge of water, thunder and lightning. It continued for at least the next hour and a half or so, while we walked around looking at shops. Jackson, for all it's out in the middle of nowhere, is a highly-priced haven for artists, antiquers, and collectors. Oh, and people who like dead, slightly-endangered, stuffed creatures.

HUGE ones.

At 4.15, I was sitting at a rickety table in the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, writing my second batch of postcards for the day, when the lights flickered a few times. A few minutes later, the power went out. In the whole town. Short of a hurricane or something, has this ever happened to you? Not to me; the central parts of towns always have generators to keep them going. But every single light in Jackson went out that afternoon, thanks to the huge storm.

After half an hour, we decided to skedaddle and get on our way to Rock Springs, our scheduled stop. Nearly an hour later, we were out of the town and on the two-lane 'highway' going south. Wyoming is EMPTY after the mountain ranges; the Rockies kind of stop in a high plateau for most of the state. It's called the South Pass and that's where all the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail came through. It is seriously desolate land and honestly depressing and tiring to look at. There is nothing there. No trees. No crops. No animals. Nada. Scrubby brushland rolling on for miles in all directions.

Wyoming is the least populous state in the nation--less than half a million. The biggest city is its capital, Cheyenne, which has less than fifty thousand people. I think it's safe to say that the whole state is the utter antithesis to New York City. Certainly a culture shock, and I'm not even from a big city.

Oh, somewhere in the middle of all that nothingness, the odometer on my car hit 100,000 miles. Cool.

Remember that storm in Jackson? Oh, it didn't stop there. No, it was part of the biggest, lowest black cloud I have ever seen. We were trapped under it for at least a hundred miles. (That is not an exaggeration, either.) Remember the alien ships in Independence Day, covering the skies of the cities? That's how big this thing was.

Look at that!

Roughly fifteen miles north of Rock Springs, we escpaed from under this Gargantuan Black Cloud of Eternal Doom. I tell you, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Get a look at the side view! Look how thick it is--you can't even see the top! The fucking thing looks like an anvil; it billows out angrily at the bottom, all the better to wreak its havoc upon a poor innocent just trying to get across the country.

Around 8, we finally got in to Rock Springs. Took less than half an hour to learn that every single room is booked--not only in Rock Springs, but also in the towns 100 miles in either direction. (As in, two towns, one west and one east. I tell, you, NOTHING in Wyoming.) We ate a quick dinner and decided to just head for Laramie, which is a bigger town and about 200 miles to the east. Left Rock Springs at 9pm.

At 11.30, again in the middle of nowhere on the dark and nearly-empty-but-for-semis highway, we stopped for about sixty seconds on an exit ramp. The sky was totally clear, and it was completely stuffed, just littered, with stars. I had never seen so many before. (And that's saying something; my dad lives on top of a mountain.) The Milky Way was a clear trail of white fog, cutting a wide swath across the entire sky. It was just utterly, breathtakingly, astoundingly beautiful.

Five minutes later, no joke: the sky was completely clouded over. Not a single star visible.

Anyway, at exactly midnight, we pulled off I-80 to Laramie, and thank the good gods of travel, the EconoLodge had rooms. Hallelujah! I will forever love and be grateful to the entire EconoLodge company for being our savior that day.

In these two days, my dad and I drove over a thousand miles, and saw tons of wildlife and abundant natural beauty. I swear, those two days lasted about three weeks. They were intense, interesting, and sometimes dull (ahem, Wyoming) but what an incredible way to begin my journey. Talk about adventure!

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