Saturday, September 8, 2012

Circling America

By Claire

Six months ago we firmed up our long-term plans of driving around the U.S. Our goal was to fit in as much as we could in two months without turning it into a death march. We split up the duties, each taking various states and planning what to see and do, where to stay and how long to linger. That took us a month of sitting in front of our computers almost all day, every day. But we did it and now we are on the road without a care in the world except to show up according to our itinerary.

We departed on the day after Labor Day and put two long days and 851 miles of driving behind us driving through Nevada and Idaho before reaching Wyoming and the real beginning of our trip. Not much to say about Nevada other than the ubiquitous signs for The Boot Barn (Western Wear!), the Pigs Bar-B-Q, Winnemucca Western Wear, Deer Migration Area and, our favorite, Report Shooting From Highway. Well, you get the picture. Driving along Highway 30 in Idaho near Twin Falls we found it curiously content free except for Intermountain Taxidermy.

I had found a nice little place, a bit off the beaten path, called the Flying Saddle Resort, right on the Snake River in Alpine, Wyoming. It had great amenities, including an indoor pool and hot tub, restaurant, bar and drive-thru liquor store. Our room was huge and, after unloading, we headed for the bar.

Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything. ~ Charles Kuralt


You know you’re in Wyoming when...

Which one is the real horse's ass?

The Drive-Thru Liquor store also had a coffee shop and gift shop (of course).

Relaxing on the Snake River

Flying Saddle Resort

We soaked in the hot tub and swam in the pool even though an indoor pool is a bit strange for Californians. I guess it gets cold here—Spring may not start until June. We’ve definitely seen signs of fall.

Wyoming: Wynot?


We left early, heading to Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park. Our bartender from the night before mentioned the Tram at Teton Village as a must do, so we did. It was everything she said it would be and gave us a preview of what we would see in the park.


Tram View

The ride was over 4,000 vertical feet in 15 minutes. Fast and smooth, with great views all the way to the top.

We walked around, taking in the views, noticing especially, the smoke that was curling through the valley from three forest fires in the area.

Fall is in the Air

Naturally, this amount of exertion called for a food break. We were triple layered with earmuffs and double gloves (me) and both ordered hot chocolate. Chuck couldn’t resist the brown sugar waffle. I must admit, the taste I had was pretty scrumptious.

Now that we’re in a National Park (or almost; Teton Village is mostly a tourist spot with sports shops and restaurants just before the actual entrance) we’re seeing more and more warnings about bears and various other things that might cause our deaths.


We drove on from the village, crossed through the entrance, then realized we had missed the Craig Thompson Visitor Center that featured an introductory video of the park. We circled back, found the visitor center, a dramatic building beautifully situated with wonderful exhibits, but found out the projector was not working! We walked around a bit, talked to a ranger about what to see and do and then headed back to the park entrance and on through to the scenic drive with a stop at the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve.

Visitor Center

Laurance S. Rockefeller Building

Inside Building

On the Porch

The Rockefeller Preserve was better than we expected. The building, particularly the inside, was sleek and modern with lots of wood. The entire preserve is green—from the hybrid parking, which we took advantage of for the first time (parking our Prius right next to its twin) to the composting toilets in the restrooms. The U.S. Green Building Council has awarded Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification, the highest level of achievement, to the preserve. The exhibits consisted of beautiful, changing photographs with audio and a sound room with bench seating and speakers surrounding us. We sat for 10 minutes or so with our eyes closed listening to birds, coyotes, thunder, an owl beating his wings (we saw it on the photo video—or we wouldn’t have recognized it) and so many things we could not identify that we were completely enraptured. We are so glad we stopped here!

On we went, continuing on the Scenic Loop to Jenny Lake where we walked and viewed the sites.

After a picnic lunch in a slight sprinkle, we meandered the rest of the way through Grand Teton NP directly into Yellowstone National Park.

Wind speaks through pines
Light animates granite.
An Eagle soars – its shadow crosses over us.
~ Terry Tempest Williams


Snake River—it’s been following us since Idaho but it ends here

Lewis Falls, our intro to the Park

We arrived in time for a visit to the visitor center and a ranger-led hike to the West Thumb Geyser Basin. By this time it was really cold with a strong wind. We had dropped from 90 degrees in Nevada to 54 in Wyoming. I’m so grateful for my earmuffs and double gloves. The lecture was interesting and the sights were wonderful; but I only lasted a little over an hour before the cold forced me to give Chuck a signal—we’re outta here!


Black Pool

Another Steaming Pool


Boiling Cone

We headed to the Grant Village Lodge to drop off our things and get sorted before dinner at the dining room. Along the way we spotted people pulled over in some disarray--who cares if your car gets creamed as long as you get that photo op? Well we pulled over too, and much to our delight we spotted some elk!


Elk Behind--Does this forest make my butt look big?

We drove on only to find even more cars jumbled up here and there; so of course we had to join them. I was so excited I actually started to get out of the car without turning it off or fully coming to a stop.

Photo Op

Bull Elk!

We walked to our much anticipated dinner and lucked out with window seats. It was so nice to be warm and to be cared for by the pleasant wait staff. Chuck ordered the Elk and Bison Meatloaf and I had the Grilled Polenta Ragout. Yum.

Dessert was de rigueur and of course we had to order the local special: Yellowstone Caldera with molton chocolate, supplemented with an after dinner drink of Laphroaig Scotch, neat.

Back in our room at the Grant Lodge, our teddy bear soap was waiting for us as well as our beds. We were thrilled to see on our dash board display that we had achieved our best mileage yet: 56.3 mpg. However, our average speed was only 34 mph. Speed does make a difference.


National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst. ~ Wallace Stegner


We were on the Grand Loop road by 8:30 after a mediocre breakfast at the Grant Lodge Dining room.  My expectations were set at the Scandinavian level so I was bound to be disappointed.  Promised a buffet with granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, juice and coffee along with the usual baked goods, scrambled eggs, bacon, french toast, sausage and home fries with the clear instruction to eat as much as you care to, I was shocked to find the “bowls” for the granola no bigger than a small tea cup.  I juggled three of these to the table, each containing a tiny portion (by my standards) of yogurt (so sweet my teeth hurt), fruit and granola.  The fruit turned out to be the usual hotel fare of melon and grapes.  Chuck dove into french toast, bacon and eggs.  But, on to the day.
We had decided to drive one entire side of the figure eight that makes up the Yellowstone main drive, planning to drive the other side tomorrow on our way to Bozeman, Montana.  However, the sights and sounds were just too fantastic not to linger.
We began with Old Faithful, the most famous geyser at the park.  Along with a crowd of others, we patiently waited for the show to begin.  It didn’t take long before it was spurting and shooting into the sky.
Old Faithful
It truly was a thrill to me to see this as we sat in the warm sunshine on benches surrounding the geyser at the beginning of a perfect day.  We walked back into the Visitor Center where we were told a video would be shown in a couple of minutes.  It was worth seeing but we were anxious to get out there and see all we could.  We bought a $.50 map and brochure that would guide us to the many, many sights along the way.  We started with Castle Geyser which  explodes as high as 90 feet twice daily from an ancient twelve foot cone.   The rangers have predictions posted so we knew we were within half an hour or so to lift off.  As the crowd gathered, we watched as the geyser threw out some teaser spumes before the big event.
Castle Geyser
Castle Geyser Bubbling
Another Tease
Watching Castle Geyser
Another View
The erruption went on and on; so we continued along the boardwalk, noticing that Old Faithful was at full blast once again. It is by far the most of the predictable geysers and probably the youngest. Old Faithful in the background
Here are some of the beautiful natural features along the way.
We came upon Giant Geyser which can erupt over 50 times a year (2007) or once a year (2010).  Splashes in the cone are common.
This is Grotto Geyser which can shoot water out of various holes.
More sights:
Two guys waiting for something to erupt
By now it was after noon and we were only 20 miles from our starting point and getting hungry.  We were on our way back to the car to pick up our picnic when we passed the Old Faithful Inn.  I had to see the inside.  It welcomed its first guests in 1904.  It has survived a 7.5 magnitude earthquake (there are 3,000 to 6,000 each year, usually at 1 or 2 on the Richter Scale), and the fires of 1988 and has received National Landmark Designation.  Wandering into the 76 foot lobby we gasped at the ceiling; it must have been 4 stories tall.  Two huge stone fireplaces were surrounded by large, comfortable chairs.  Chuck wandered over to the dining room lunch menu and commented that the prices weren’t that bad.  I took a look and made a snap decision to ditch the picnic and experience the beautiful dining room.  We weren’t sorry.  What really drew me in was the Yellowstone BLT with  toasted cracked nine-grain bread, topped with natural applewood-smoked bacon, romaine lettuce and fresh tomato .  We each ordered one along with an iced tea and a lemonade.  Perfect!
We lingered for awhile before heading out once again on the Grand Loop Road.  It wasn’t long before we noticed lots of cars pulled over and 3 bison standing by the side of the road.  We stopped to look, then circled around to the other side where we could get a better view.  What excitement!  Our first sighting.
The best of the bunch
Chuck has the eagle eyes and spotted a coyote close to the bison, almost blending in with the landscape.  The bison regrouped, apparently, to menace him.  Another thrill!
We drove on with the admonition that we would not stop every time we saw something interesting or we wouldn’t make it back until midnight.  That only partially worked.  Everything we saw was spectacular.
A River Runs Through It
Turning down a side road we couldn’t resist, we both caught sight of something golden soaring past at such speed I thought it was a zip line, only to realize it was probably an osprey.  We drove to the next wide mark in the road and screeched to a halt.  Chuck searched for him but he was gone.  Instead we found some gorgeous falls.
And then we found him atop a dead tree, a typical location for their nests.
Meandering along, we came to a swimming hole.  If only we’d known! 
Our next stop was the Madison Visitor Center, a tiny stone building from way back. Three rangers were on duty and one had a scope set up and focused on an elk.  Another surprise for the day.  We went outside and walked as close as we could (one of the rangers said to keep 6 pickup trucks distance away).  How majestic he was, relaxing and posing for us.
Another ranger helped us pinpoint the seriously important things to see for the rest of our time here, marking a map for us which was very helpful.  By now it was 4 pm and we weren’t even half way around the bottom figure eight (our original plan failed completely.  There is just too much to see).  We’ll see most of the rest of the bottom along with the worthy sights of the top half tomorrow, as we drive through the Park on our way to Bozeman).
There were very few people on the road today; but even those numbers had dwindled to almost nothing.  I guess they were resting up before a nice meal somewhere while we poked along, all alone until, SCREECH, a HERD of bison!  My dream come true!  Chuck counted 26 and after the photo op we relaxed and watched them through binoculars.
OK, so we’ve seen our quota of bison along with elk, coyote, moose and Golden Mantled ground squirrels.  In fact, we just floor it when we see small groups of people with cameras poised on the side of the road.  It’s time to get home!  And then we saw the view.  The sun was at that place where everything is a buttery shade and so beautiful.  What a way to end the day.
But wait!  There’s more.  Another herd of bison!  Ho hum.  Except these guys were crossing the road while a ranger in an official vehicle with flashing lights and a megaphone was trying to herd them across the road.  What a sight.  So close, we could almost touch them.
Today we drove 109 miles, with an average mpg figure of 55.8—reaching 59.1 for one stretch! This was partly due to averaging only 34 mph for the day. As an aside, we crossed the Continental Divide a couple of times, today. The highest crossing was at 8,391 feet—no biggie, just another day in the life…
I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.  ~ Robert Frost AMAZING YELLOWSTONE, Third Day After a quick breakfast in our room from supplies we brought along (big improvement over yesterday's), we began our journey to see the rest of Yellowstone, or at least the very best of the best.  Our first stop was Bridge Bay where we took a 3 mile hike to Natural Bridge.  It was a nice walk, the air was fresh and cool and we noticed that fall is definitely approaching.
Natural Bridge
Our next stop was Lake Village where we found the lovely old Lake Lodge.  Several people were rocking in their chairs taking in the view.  But for us, the road was calling.
Along the way, a close encounter of the first kind--and I worried we wouldn't see any bison!  This was a thrilling but terrifying event.  As he galloped in front of our car, I looked over and saw a woman with her camera standing  directly in his path.  She dashed for her car; at the same moment, the bison changed direction and veered  towards her, coming at top speed, narrowly missing her.  She came very close to being trampled. These guys are huge!
We drove to Mud Volcano and happily found another herd of bison taking in the warm steam.  Can you ever see too many of these guys?
Dragon's Mouth Spring.  It really sounds like there's a dragon in there.
Mud bath anyone?
The next big sight was in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone where we saw Upper and Lower Falls.
Time for lunch:  Buffalo Chip Chocolate and Fresh Peach Ice Cream
We've seen so much beauty, it was a shock to see the evidence of the 1988 fire that devastated so much of Yellowstone. But notice the new growth that promises complete recovery sometime in the future.
Our last stop in Yellowstone was at Mammoth Hot Springs which are the main attraction of the Mammoth District. These features are quite different from thermal areas elsewhere in the park. Travertine formations grow much more rapidly than sinter (a freshwater calcium carbonate deposit) formations due to the softer nature of limestone. As hot water rises through limestone, large quantities of rock are dissolved by the hot water, and a white chalky mineral is deposited on the surface.  We were excited about seeing this because it is the same type of feature we saw in Pamukkale in Turkey.
Liberty Cap, a dormant hot spring cone
Our visit was stupendous! Who knew?  I was truly amazed at the diversity of sites.  We drove 124 miles around this scenic park which spans an area of 3,468.4 square miles. Our average mpg was 56.4 with a best of 60.3!
How we treat our land, how we build upon it,  how we act toward our air and water,  will in the long run tell  what kind of people we really are.  ~ Laurance S. Rockefeller

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