Episode 4: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.
America has, in the words of Bill Bryson, a giddying abundance of absolutely everything. We found their Safeway Supermarkets to be great one-stop shops, selling everything, from all manner of food (including “spray-on” cheese in a can), fishin’ and huntin’ needs, a pharmacy for all your drugs, always a toilet, and an extensive alcohol selection (beer and spirits regularly at half the price that we pay in Australia). However, overall we both agreed that much of the food here varies from unremarkable to downright ghastly (and often in huge helpings of ghastliness). I was well aware of this, but it was something of a shock to Ross. On a couple of occasions we were caught out and had no choice but to assault our throats with tasteless fat-infused burgers or fries or hotdogs or pizza, the latter in particular being an appalling offering. Even pastries such as croissants were a gastronomic disaster. On one occasion, I had pre-booked a pricey place for dinner for something special, but we both hated the food. The highlight on that night was the nice dinner rolls and it went seriously downhill from there. (Ross P. and John P., you would have been horrified.) The beer was also generally bad. We knew to avoid Bud and Coors. We did try all sorts of locally brewed beers, most of which were average. In Montana, Ross tried an “Old Bitch”, while I had a go at “Moose Drool”. Ross said it was the waitress that was the old bitch for serving him his choice, while my Moose Drool probably did indeed come from the salivary glands of a large herbivore. I think that the best beer here is probably the Boston-based Sam Adams.
However, for you foodies, on a few occasions we found great food. We flew to Montana, hired a car and stayed in a wild-west type town called Red Lodge, prior to entering Yellowstone National Park in neighbouring Wyoming. A gun-toting store owner, who was apparently somehow related to cowboy hero Roy Rogers, suggested a restaurant called The Bridge Creek Back country Kitchen. It was superb – with award-winning clam chowder (it included bits of potato, bacon and dill in it), a green salad of huckleberry balsamic dressing, candied walnuts, mushrooms, greens and crumbed blue cheese, and great seafood (despite being miles from any coastline).
Anyway, this blog is about Yellowstone, where we have spent the past five days. Yellowstone has been, for me at least, the highlight of the whole trip. Proclaimed by the US Congress in 1872, Yellowstone was the first National Park to be declared in the world. Because Wyoming and Montana were just territories at the time, not states, the Federal government took charge of it – hence the invention of the term “National Park”. (The world’s second official National Park was our own Royal National Park, just South of Sydney, proclaimed in 1879.) As most of you know, the high altitude greater Yellowstone region sits on a massive super-volcano, hence all the geysers, steam vents, bubbling mud pools and beautifully coloured hot springs. The active Yellowstone super-volcano is due to erupt again at any time, seriously jeopardising the whole world and especially North America - a sobering thought as you stroll along its glorious forested trails.
Yellowstone is magnificent and offers a lot to see – from the Old Faithful geyser and other amazing geothermal wonders, to the Yellowstone Canyon and Falls, the sweeping valleys, pristine rivers and lakes, the wonderful old world charm of Old Faithful Inn and Yellowstone Hotel - and, of course, the wildlife. We saw three grizzly bears (dad, mum and cub), a black bear, a naughty coyote, elk, sandhill cranes, heaps of bison, and, through our binoculars and someone’s spotting scope, two wolves. The bison were particularly cool to watch. On several occasions, we had bison walking past the car. In one instance, a rhino-sized male was sauntering down the road and a park ranger in his flashing vehicle was “escorting it” through the line of tourist cars. It looked like it was about to turn and charge our car, but luckily walked nonchalantly by. One morning at dawn, I watched in awe as a large herd of bison crossed the road in the early morning mist in front of the car, their breath hanging like puffs of smoke in the crisp air, and then they all entered the river (young and old) and effortlessly swam to the other side.
At Old Faithful Visitor centre, there was a white board on which people could list their daily animal sightings. You had to note the species, the place and time. Although I pointed out that it stated that only “legitimate sightings” were acceptable, Ross wrote:
Species: Yogi bear and boo boo
When: at lunchtime, in Jellystone
Where: At the pic-a-nic basket, of course.
Yellowstone is a very large park and features a number of park lodgings located at different spots, with all the mod cons. We stayed at a few different places. Disconcertingly, much of the Yellowstone wildlife often appeared on its restaurant menus ! Thus, Ross got stuck into a bison burger, and also tried elk medallions, and for dessert had moose mousse (OK, I made the last one up).
Surrounded by much controversy, wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and have generally flourished. They have had an interesting impact on restoring park ecosystems. For example, wolves have apparently caused an increase in the number of aquatic invertebrates… How? Well, the re-appearance of wolves has meant more predation upon elk, which has meant less elk to eat at trees around the waters edge, which has meant more trees for beavers to use for food and homes, which has meant more beavers and beaver-made dams, which has meant greater water retention, which has meant an increase in river invertebrates! A good illustration of the interrelationships of organisms, and the complexity of ecosystems.
We both wanted to see a moose, but did not see any in Yellowstone. Ross was particularly keen.
“I’ve seen rocky the squirrel,” he said, “but what about Bullwinkle the moose? I’d really love to see a moose.”
We soon learnt that there are actually few moose in Yellowstone, but apparently quite a number of them in the adjoining Grand Teton National Park. So, on our last day, we did a long drive down through the Tetons in search of moose. What eventuated was one “out of the box.” Firstly, the Grand Tetons were magnificent – huge mountains running down the spine of the park, with clear lakes and coniferous forest. We arrived at the best moose area too early – around noon (not best time for animals) - so we pressed further South to the hip and happening town of Jackson Hole. The well-heeled come here to ski in Winter. It was a glorious sunny day, the place was full boutique shops and eateries, a festival was in full swing, with lots of beautiful people about! We were told to have lunch at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, which was great. Lots of Western memorabilia all over the place, very groovy atmosphere and saddles as stools up at the bar. We had the all-American Philli Cheese steak for lunch. By 4pm it was time to head back into Grand Teton Park. We first spotted a female moose lying down in a swampy gully (we were alerted by all the other cars and people). A little later, Ross got his Bullwinkle, as we followed some local advice and came upon a magnificent bull moose after we walked along a track and found him standing regally on the opposite side of the riverbank, in full view. He stood and happily fed on willow leaves.
Very satisfied, we left Grand Teton and Yellowstone with our “must see animals” ticked off the list. We are now back in Billings, and fly to San Francisco tomorrow – the last part of the trip.
Love to all
Craig (and Ross).
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