Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Great Montana Trip of 2009

We've spent the last week deep in the various wildernesses of Montana, attending a family reunion on my Mother-in-law's side of the family, slogging through Yellowstone National Park and spending an all too brief time at a set of rustic cabins in an area that will some day be discovered by Eastern explorers and incorporated into the United States. It was an interesting trip.

We left bright and early Thursday morning, picking Lindsay up from her job at 7am, bright and shiny, and headed North, towards West Yellowstone. Our initial plan for the trip was to do Yellowstone, camp, head into a wee town called Roundup, MT for the family reunion on Saturday, spend a couple of days at the cabins, then head home in time for Lindsay to go to work Tuesday night.

The first leg of the drive was pretty uneventful. I've driven that stretch so many times that I feel like I should know the names of the farms along the way by now. Linz and I have both been to Yellowstone before, but it was some time ago, I think I was in jr. high or something, so we were intrigued to visit and see what had changed. I assumed that it would be a lot more refined and commercial, more Disney, less Grizzly Adams.

The first lesson we learned about YNP, is never go there during the summer.

The next is bring a cooler with ice and frosty beverages. We left ours at home, thinking we wouldn't really need it, but it takes mere seconds for a delightful drink to turn into a warm phlegmy one.

Never bring your dogs. We didn't, as we were going too many other places and planned to sleep in the Element the entire time, where there was clearly no room for 150lbs of dog, but YNP is no place for pets. They aren't allowed on the trails or in the buildings and it's much to hot to leave them in your car. The only reason I could possibly think for you to bring your dog is if it were some sort of silly little pocket dog and you wanted it to evaporate into a little cloud of yappy steam.

Never go to YNP in the summer.

Bring sunscreen, film, decent walking shoes and patience. There are plenty of places to go, and it is amazing, gorgeous country, but it could take a while to get there and the sun is pretty prominent. My driving arm is noticeably darker than the rest of my pasty Irish body.

Upon arriving at the gates of Yellowstone, you're confronted with a pretty good collection of lines, each collecting the mandatory $25 per car. It looks daunting, but moves at a pretty good clip. Of course, just after the gate, the 6 lines converge into one and that good clip becomes a pleasant drive.

Soon after, our pleasant drive became a grinding, ridiculous standstill. Lines of cars inched along, moving maybe six feet every five minutes. Cars would find a side road, swoop ahead, hoping to sneak a few cars ahead, where the other visitors would ignore them until they were often stuck back where they were.

Suddenly, around a corner, I could see cars moving! I put away my book that I had been reading while driving and peered curiously ahead, what in the world was slowing us so dramatically? An accident? Some sort of elaborate street show? Aliens? A Black Bear in a fight with a Wolf?

No.. the riveting object that slowed over a hundred cars to a stop for over an hour was an eagle in a tree. That's right, an EAGLE. Now, I may be biased, I did grow up in Idaho, but Bald Eagles are my favorite animal, or at least they used to be, and even at age 10, when I would have been wearing a shirt with one on it, likely, one in a tree would not have been that exciting. I saw a man tear his hat off and run to the side of the road to get a photo.

I can only assume there was a Sasquatch peering shyly from behind the same tree as the eagle and I just missed it.

Anyway, once we were past the Great Bird Of Prey Roadblock, things moved at a pretty good clip, considering how many people were in the park. Which was a ton. It was so full that folks were parking along the road and hiking into features because the ample parking lots at each were overflowing. Chances were good that if you shunned the 45 foot lines for the porta potties and decided to pee on a bush, you'd hit a lovely young Asian family, who would promptly get a snapshot of you doing so.

We still enjoyed the walks along the boardwalks though, circling each exhibit. I was shocked how much things had stayed the same since I was last there. Apart from replacing some of the boardwalks with plastic boards, most of the features looked identical.
The Trexx looked nice, but didn't have the same feel as the creaky, aged wooden boards.

Yellowstone National Park is an amazing place. Like an alien landscape with barren, burping patches of mud, sulfur spewing geysers, strange rock formations, all surrounded by lush forests and large, lumbering animals. It's truly a once in a lifetime kind of place. One thing that seemed missing to me, were informative plaques. It seemed like they used to have a lot of them, telling you about things, history, temperature, changes, wildlife, etc... Now, there were a few like that, but most features had a simple nameplate.

On August 20th, Three days before my tenth birthday in 1988, an event dubbed Black Saturday by the park, fires consumed hundreds of square miles of park land (Nearly 36% of the park). To this day, the effects of the massive blaze is evident in nearly every tourist area in the park. The forests are littered with the corpses of trees, burned at the roots and collapsed like a massive game of pick up sticks. I remember my visit there years ago, seeing the charred trunks, blackened and ominous. Today, most of the trees are bleached white and threaded with cracks, but impressive nonetheless. I was really shocked to see not a single thing about the fires posted or in any books. Maybe I missed something along the way, we only explored half of the park, but it seemed like there should have been a few references to the massive number of fallen trees, which have gradually been taken over with new growth.

We ate lunch at the old Hotel Yellowstone, which is a most remarkable building. If you have never been inside, you have to. Wandering around in the wooden depths of it was worth the cost of admission as far as I was concerned. I also failed to take any pictures. We bought our lunch there, paid $17 for a sandwich, some potato salad and one soda. Yeesh. I can say though, that if you want to see Old Faithful, screw sitting on those benches by the geyser, pack a sack lunch, head up to the second floor of the hotel and set up shop in one of the rows of benches on the balcony. Best seats in the house.

We however, ate our lunch there, then left without seeing the actual spoutage. Lets face it, if you've seen it once, or never but seen a video, you've pretty much seen it enough. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if it ever stopped spouting regularly, if the park would recreate it with pipes, only make it more spectacular. Vegas style, baby!

My personal favorite area we toured was the Sour Lake/ Dragon's Somethingorother circuit.
Look at that. Imagine stumbling across that in the middle of a forest or something. How could you not assume a dragon slept within?

The Sour Lake loop is really pretty, and has some interesting features, though the initial hill was a bit daunting when the sun is pounding down and you're still carrying your hibernation weight, like i have since 1987.

Speaking of odd sights, as we walked up the trail, a very large woman was walking down, camera around her neck. As she walked past people, telegraphing her moves, so nonchalant that she was painfully obvious, she would turn her head away from the person, lift her camera up, and take a snapshot of the other person's face. We are pretty sure she was stealing people's souls. She got the Indian guy ahead of us and my wife's, but I glared angerly at her and had a bigger camera, so she waddled past, looking for easier prey. Soul-sucker.

Anyway, the park was pretty, but if we ever go back, it'll be in late, late summer or early spring. I'd rather have snow than crowds.

We ate in Cooke City, in a little bar that had excellent pizza and a very harried waitress and found a campsite just past there.

A pretty full day. We locked our valuables in the Bear box and crashed hard.


Steve at Random said...

I take it that we're getting the vacation to Montana in a serial package again. I'm looking forward to the trip to Solberg cabins and Smores on the campfire. The "popcorn" story and the "He won't get any better action than that" sequel will be worth waiting for.

randymeiss said...

Thank you so much for sharing a glimpse of Montana. As opposed to fellow blogger Steve at Random who has been mysteriously mute on the subject. He can't even use the excuse of being too busy as I spied him golfing with his sons Wednesday morning, during working hours no less!

I've only been to Yellowstone a couple times. The first time I was very young and I believe we went during the off season. My 2nd time was a glorious motorcycle trip I took to Oregon with my Dad and brother. You have not lived until you've crossed the Rocky Mountains from the seat of a motorcycle. I don't remember YNP being all that crowded though. We must have hit a low spot during the tourist season.