Published: May 30th 2007May 30th 2007
Motorhome News from North America 44 17th May - 30th May 2007
A nomadic swan-song. The magic of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons
There’s a new way of life just around the corner; a life of cars and motels, turning onto the tourist track on the western fringe of Wyoming and the borders of Montana, Idaho, Utah and back into Colorado for the last two weeks of our tour of North America before flying out from Denver on the 30th May. We’ll miss the Winnebago: the stops for coffee and lunch at the nod of a hat, home cooking, knowing where to find a clean pair of socks, the diary, a map of Utah, the telescope (deep in the suitcase when you most need it); a bottle-opener when it’s absolutely essential - and the toilet, so handy to have one along. The trunk of the hired Kia Amanti is full to the brim with cases and bags, rucksacks and golf clubs, plastic bags full of books, cups, the kettle and teabags for the odd motel where none exists.
Before leaving the serenity of Wyoming’s east, we phoned our friends, Ralph and Jojo in Washington State for them to
join us for a few days in Yellowstone, a previous promise we were about to keep. Their motorhome, Birdmobile II, was packed and ready, awaiting our call. Whilst they travelled east from Olympia, we took the road west from Lusk leaving Winnie with her new owners, and set off across the plains of Wyoming through Casper, Thermopolis, and on into Cody.
The town of Cody awakens images of William Frederick Cody - Buffalo Bill, as he became better known. Bill once owned the Irma Hotel where we pulled in for lunch. An enormous original cherry-wood bar still graces one wall and an ornate brass till of the era lives out its days in front of the mirror. A hand-written sign above the bar; presumably intended to be the joke, rather than the soup of the day, read as follows:
‘When your in the sitting room, your American. What are you when your in the bathroom?’
Being of stout English stock, we took the trouble to point out the grammatical errors to our friendly waitress. She went off to discuss the problem with other members of the staff and soon returned with a pen and good humouredly altered the first
The cherrywood bar in Buffalo Bill's Irma Hotel - A grammar lesson
‘your’ to ‘you are’, when ‘you’re’ would have sufficed rather nicely. Being European, we did get the gist anyway. It’s not so much the grammar, but the spelling and designer words that separate us, English not being their native language here in the USA you understand. Let me give you an example:
Tonite we had take-out hot dogs with fries and catsup for supper. The hot dogs were broiled in a skillet. There were big cars parked on the lot in all sorts of colors, mostly gray, and they all had tires, trunks, hoods, mufflers and windshields. Gas for these cars comes in gallons, not liters, and you can pay by check for your gas, tickets for the theater or airplane travel - and hopefully get seats near the center if your lucky.
There’s a fabulous Historical Centre dedicated to Buffalo Bill (1846 - 1917) on the edge of Cody, displaying an amazing array of genuine memorabilia from his glory days as trapper, guide, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, US Army scout, Colonel, businessman of some renown and showman supreme. His ‘Wild West’ extravaganza travelled across America and Europe around the turn of the Century attracting the attention of gentry
and royalty across both continents, creating a lasting legend of America’s West.
Wyoming has another face to the west: wild, beautiful and rugged, graced with stunning mountains tinged with snow, wide blue lakes sparkling in the sunlight, huge forests of pine and spruce and geological wonders beyond belief. This western fringe reveals the secrets and diversity of Yellowstone’s volcanic activity and wildlife, without equal almost anywhere else on our journey throughout North America. Such a perfect place attracts the tourists in large numbers. Coaches laden with travellers, many of whom are British, stalk the highways. But Yellowstone’s figure of eight 140 mile circuit allows cars, busses and bikes to drive the scenic byways with relative ease, ever cautious of wandering elk and herds of sanguine bison, heads down in a daze, sad-eyed, another boring day of munching ahead, the same old grass, another crowd of camera-snapping humans, gaping, gawking. Many of the visitor centres, lodges, campgrounds and hotels, even some roads and tourist attractions were not yet open; awaiting the coming of Memorial Day, the last Monday of May, the day when this huge country awakens from hibernation in memory of its veterans, and first thoughts of summer and
the great outdoors strike at the heart of the American community.
Epitaphs to Yellowstone’s big burn of 1988 still stand throughout the park; yesterday’s trees, pointing skywards, as black as porcupine quills above new life of bright green forest regeneration. Fallen lodge-poles litter the steep hillsides, graveyards of dead matchsticks, spilling into angry rivers swollen by fresh spring run-off, log-jammed like beaver lodges at every rocky turn. Trees that were then but a few inches tall, snapped into life by raging fire when we last visited in 1993, now stand ten to fifteen feet, gracing hills and valleys with a bright cloak of green. Mountain - tops, tinged with winter white, appear on distant horizons beyond the park’s boundaries, a fitting backdrop to open meadows, sagebrush flats, thickets of pine and spruce, stands of aspen bright with spring, and cottonwood along the river banks. For three whole days, we indulged in the sights and sounds of this magnificent park, walking in bright sunshine, though sometimes remarkably cold, cautiously eyeing dark clouds and misty precipitation above the mountains further west. Finally, on Tuesday, 22nd May, we woke to a gentle fall of snow, the white of Christmas hanging in the
Signs of successful regeneration
trees and covering the car. Not good for hiking or birding!
High above, the Continental Divide held winter’s remnants beside the road, greying snow steadfast in the chill of May at 8,000ft, but signs of spring shouted clear in the rivers and roaring waterfalls of Yellowstone’s multicoloured canyons, fleeing the mountains, rushing westwards to the Pacific and way out to the Atlantic in the east.
At Yellowstone’s heart, geothermal activity beats aloud: clouds of steam rise randomly from roadside meadows, gushing geysers boil and bubble in mineral pools of dazzling colours, and Old Faithful spouts forth in a glorious fountain to delight the crowds at ninety minute intervals. Glugging mud, slimy as a slippery serpent, splashing, spraying, creamy white, rumbled away beneath our feet, playing a merry tune of angry gremlins in their underground world of volcanic chaos, and smoking ponds shone sapphire blue, sulphurous yellow and emerald green. Mammoth Springs had changed since our last visit; its term of activity over for now, set in stone, a calcium carbonate wedding cake; a static white monument awaiting future eruptions, though still a sight to behold. Boiling rivers still bubble in the park, bronzed and sulphurous under a dense
A pair of marauding wolves passed us by
layer of steam, the faint smell rising on the mist, stinging the nostrils and cool on the face as an early spring shower.
The grey-haired-nomads came to Yellowstone with thoughts of wildlife. With patience and a wagonload of our packaged good-fortune it was all there for the taking. Away in the distance, a pair of marauding wolves crossed the shallows of Yellowstone River, slowly edging their way along the rise to our left; vanishing momentarily behind the sagebrush slopes, to reappear as they crossed the road nearby! Cool, eh? Our hearts still racing, we hunted out the sandhill-cranes, brown now in their breeding garb, Canada geese with strings of goslings, herds of elk across the meadows, bison browsing in the valley, an opportunist osprey took a duck from the river bank right before us, a cloud of feathers left behind, a pair of bald eagles tended their nest, and mother black bear took to the water for an afternoon bathe - leaving her tiny cub on the bank watching in amusement. That’s our sort of day, and as it drew to a close a thin sliver of moon appeared above the mountains, their jagged peaks a dark silhouette against
the last throes of a salmon pink sunset. A herd of bison blocked the road ahead as we turned for home, moving listlessly to their overnight haunt amongst the trees on the far side of the river, a long queue of traffic patiently waiting in their wake. We know the bison feeling; motorhomers, like caravaners, can always see that long line of traffic - in their rear view mirrors.
Finally, quite exhausted from excitement and the effects of altitude, we moved further south into the Grand Teton National Park; one we had missed on our previous visit to Wyoming and one we could not possibly pass a second time. The Grand Tetons form a long strand of fairytale mountains running the length of the park, some 50 miles of gleaming pinnacles, sharp on the skyline, a great wall marking the western edge of Wyoming, rising abruptly from the flat sagebrush plains of Jackson Hole where elk wander each year on migration to the north of the town of Jackson.
Ralph and Jojo left us to return home shortly after breakfast in the Lodge at Signal Mountain; tough goodbyes for such good friends, but thoughts of boats and birdy
festivals, a dicky heater and that unexpected layer of snow forced their early farewell. It takes special friends to travel 750 miles from their home to share a few days with us. They’ll be in England sometime in the future.
The snow continued for much of the day, obliterating the mountains and ruining any hopes of hiking. Somewhat dejected, we made our way through the park to the town of Jackson. The tourists get down to Jackson too, though the rush wouldn’t start until Friday, Memorial Day weekend, the day the hotel prices double. It’s a tourist town with a bang and they do it well! Jackson is quite unable to compete with Vail or Aspen on the ski-slopes, but it does surpass their rhino-skin dollar image with the genuine character of the West: broad covered sidewalks, timbered buildings, stunning galleries, sophisticated shops, and a warm touch of home. Sadly, all the noise and hullabaloo of the summer season would start at the weekend, with rodeos, parades and theatre performances - and we would be in Salt Lake City by then, doing something else.
Spring sunshine finally followed the snow flurries of the previous day, leaving the mountains
The Grand Tetons
Schawbacher's quiet pools
alive by morning, fresh with a new sprinkling of icing sugar, framed against the bluest of skies, sufficient excuse for us to extend our stay and return to the park for a better look - we could make up the time elsewhere. The Grand Teton is a wondrous place. We searched out the beauty of Schwabacher’s quiet pools on the beaver-dammed river, backed by the magnificence of sunlit mountains poking their heads into the wispy clouds, listening to the wind in the trees and watching the wildlife. Janice had a few words to describe the scene. “This is paradise,” she said from the bank, her eyes wide, mouth agape. The day’s walks were truly memorable; taking the path along the sparkling Snake River and up through the pinewoods on the hills; topped before the day was out, by spectacular sightings of two more black bears at close range - but not too close!
With Salt Lake in our sights, we crossed over the mountains, moving west and south through the corner of Idaho and into Utah, stopping to gaze in wonder at the azure Bear Lake and burst the taste buds with scrumptious Raspberry Shakes, a speciality of this
fruit growing area - with the opportunity to celebrate 500 days away from home as our excuse for the indulgence! Two bird reserves slowed our progress, rocking us on our heels with their scenic wonders and ornithological delights. Both are on the great Salt Lake: Bear River Reserve provides a broad freshwater marshland habitat for migrating birds and the second, Antelope Island State Park, (up to 400,000 eared-grebe gather here for the summer!) accessed by a causeway, is surrounded by the lake itself, a vast expanse of saline water fed by four rivers but with no outlet, in much the same way as the Salton Sea in California. Five new birds were added to our North American list in one day there: the Sage Thrasher, Chukar, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo and Warbling Vireo. In all we spotted 75 different species at the two reserves. That’s one good day on the birding scale of 1-75! By late afternoon we were in Salt Lake City, driving against the flow of heaving traffic heading out of town for the holiday weekend.
Salt Lake City is like no place else. The domed Capitol Building dominates the hill above the City, but it is
Salt Lake City
The Mormon Temple
the Mormon Temple that reigns supreme over heart and soul here. Pristine streets, wondrous spring gardens and grand buildings grace Temple Square, the centre of Mormon life in a land nobody wanted. Brigham Young brought the first settlers the 1,300 miles from Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1847, crossing the plains and mountains on foot and in wagons ahead of persecution, to settle in the desert beside Salt Lake. Faith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is everywhere here now: in the friendly greetings of young lady missionaries from around the world, polite smiles from neatly attired more elderly ladies and gentlemen, Sisters and Elders, and everywhere, a helping hand, a nod of welcome, another willing volunteer, a willing friend.
A day in town took us first to the Family History Centre of genealogy at 8am, opening time, to trace our ancestry, (an important feature of Mormon belief that we will all meet again in a future life) back to great-great grandparents (born c1810) - with a little help from Sister Laverne Buckmaster and super genealogy expert Mark Gardner. The subject is clearly fascinating and all absorbing, sparking yet another new interest for retirement, whenever and whatever
Salt Lake City
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir
that might be. There was insufficient time on this trip for us to reach back as far as Adam and Eve, but it should be feasible. We’ll come back some other day for another try.
By 10.30 we were ready for breakfast, too much as ever, too many carbs, then off to watch a well-produced and informative film on the life of Joseph Smith, The Prophet of the Restoration, as he is known. With so much to see and so much to learn we skipped lunch to catch an organ recital in the Tabernacle. The organ is gigantic, tuned to perfection and powerful; a rendering of Bach’s Staccato and Fugue opening the performance - as one might expect. A little tired and rather hungry we then set off for a somewhat rushed, but sumptuous dinner, in the all-white rooftop Garden Room of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. “What would you like to drink, Sir?” the young waitress enquired. “A beer, I think, please,” I replied. Something in her smile told me I had made a faux pas. She thought for a moment before replying. “I’m sorry Sir, we have not served beer here since 1842.” We left, dry, and in
A browsing buffalo
a hurry, running to grab seats at the free evening concert at the Assembly Hall as the doors closed; a family performance, of mother, her five daughters of 10 to 17 and one son, aged 18, inviting us to join them in a two hour love affair with flute, violin, cello, harp and piano. One is reminded of the Osmonds, another Mormon family with such great talent. The day left us overwhelmed, pensive - and quite exhausted!
Sunday morning: just time for an early breakfast and a return to Temple Square and the Tabernacle for another special treat. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir was performing for their regular TV Sunday broadcast performance, now in its 78th year: the longest continually broadcast programme in the world. Memorial Day provided us with a most memorable programme too, most notably, The Battle Hymn of The Republic, (Glory, Glory, Alleluia!) and America the Beautiful. Sit quietly for a moment, and imagine a magnificent oval hall of acoustic perfection seating 3,000 people, all silent and attentive, enthralled by the call of a 350 strong choir with full orchestra and organ. We are neither American, nor Mormon, but it would be difficult not to be touched
by such a performance. We have never met so many polite and respectful people in our lives as in Salt Lake City, though, for the first time in many months, we did encounter ‘down and outs’ on the street looking for hand-outs. When will this country cease to amaze us?
Time, then, to head out of town, away from the salt flats of Utah’s west, back over the mountains and across the sage-painted desert, threading our way through the rise and fall of the grassy plains; climbing, ever climbing, up into the tundra and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado on our way to Denver, a two-day drive - with a few stops on the way to check out a few more birds before our plane leaves on the 30th.
But life on the road is never quite as easy as that. Janice was keen to find another moose or two, an animal we had not seen for some months and they had eluded us in Wyoming. Our early morning hunt on a wildlife refuge near Walden gave us an American Badger and two new birds before breakfast, but we had to wait until midday for the Moose; shortly
Rocky Mountain Pass
Probably the most hairy drive of our lives!
after entering the Rocky Mountain State Park - for the third time in a month! A few spots of rain turned to snow as we started the long climb up the steep 12,000ft Pass over the northern Trail Ridge Road, opened only this Memorial Day weekend after a long winter closure for reasons of unpredictable snow and annual road repairs. The promise of stunning mountain views vanished behind a sea of blinding snow, building up on the road and leaving slushy tracks from the vehicle in front to guide our way.
The moment we cleared the tree line we knew we had made a mistake. The wind picked up over the tundra, lashing the snow horizontally across the highway, oncoming traffic all but invisible and the image of our guide car vanishing ahead of us in the total white-out; visibility down to just a few feet and, just visible, a single black line in the snow left by the vehicle in front, traction maintained only by forward momentum, unwise to stop and impossible to turn around. Vehicles in front now formed a train, each hanging on to the shape in front, eyeing the off-side precipitous drop, Janice silent, knuckles
white, our hearts pounding, the road now down to one track, snow building up on the road, wheels spinning, pulses racing and eyes sore. It was a full hour before we reached the summit, totally drained, flashing lights signalling the road closure to oncoming traffic. Just two cars followed us through, the remainder doubtless stranded half way up the mountain in the blizzard. That’s probably the most hairy ride of our lives - and boy, have we had some hairy rides!
We consider ourselves most fortunate to have had the opportunity to sample another continent in this way. Some people believe in miracles, but I’m not so sure. The last time I tried walking on water it didn’t work; but you never know; next time perhaps. So, whilst we acknowledge luck, we really believe in good fortune. Our share of that fortune has come our way over the past 505 days, roaming the four corners of this vast continent they call North America. Tomorrow we fly out of Denver bound for London Heathrow and we will be back in England, back to that other life - the real world. Quite how we will handle it is another question entirely.
Till we meet again,
David and Janice. The grey-haired-nomads.