Pilgrimage to Yellowstone
Tourists stare at a roadside diagram of The Holy City, in reality a pile of rocks that looks like a feedlot shortly after dinner. I bite for Grizzly Information Ahead, where I’m informed that having either sex or your period will make a bear want to kill you. At the east gate to Yellowstone there’s a line and a ten dollar fee.
Inside the park, at the top of Sylvan Pass, “Gateway to the Absaroka Range”, there are beautiful talus slopes, patchy snow and a geology exhibit. I stop because the truck’s clutch is burning. While it cools down I read, “This high threshold to Yellowstone traverses the Absaroka Mountains whose origins began 50 million years ago in the smoke and fire of volcanic upheaval. Today the range forms a rugged east boundary to Yellowstone.”
Today the climate is glacial. The average daily temperature at this spot is below freezing and permanent ice resides beneath loose rock. In the old days, right after the Rocky Mountain uplift, when volcanism was burying the region in thousands of feet of lava flows and cinder blows, we would have been dodging hot rocks on a tropical, rolling plateau. The old dog sinks to the ground and breathes rapidly in the thin air. I welcome the coolness and high, drifting clouds, but gather the old boy and hoist him into the truck. The black dog hops up and down, eager to be gone.
This is it: the smell of stinking water seeps through the forest and the truck alternately hits potholes, which cause it to shudder, and road construction slowdowns that make me swear. Despite the recent fire, most of the trees, though reduced to blackened shafts, stand and I feel like a flea crawling on a porcupine. I stop to take pictures of dead trees.
On to Grand Teton National Park – to the last campground that is not filled except for biting black flies. The old dog pants and buries his head in the grass and the black dog tries to hide under the trailer, but it’s no use. Having failed to buy groceries in Cody, I eat a PBJ for dinner. I parked the truck and trailer whopperjod so that the door opens onto the ugly-bugly forest and not into a crowd of RVs, but I’m stuck with the rumble of someone’s generator and motor home levelers that honk like geese.
It’s amazing how far people will go to make what could be a revivifying experience into an extension of domestic tedium. Next door, a proto-male whittles the end of a pine tree into a spear point while his father sets up the tent trailer, chops wood, rolls out the gas bar-b-que and lights bug candles. The kid, now armed, rams his creation into objects at the campsite. Tiring of this, he sticks the point between two rocks and twirls the pole furiously between his palms to generate fire. His sister works on a spear of her own as mom arranges four matching aqua and white lawn chairs around the fire pit and sets the table. Dad sneezes repeatedly as if auditioning for an allergy commercial. Mom, in cerise shorts and matching T-shirt, models a Dorothy Hamill haircut (will it never die?) stops her chores, waves at me and smiles. Cheez-whiz. Dad pops open the back of the minivan and hauls out the kids’ bikes. He lights a cigarette.
A black thing that looks like the poster child for endangered tropical insects, flings itself against the side of the trailer and drops to the ground, stunned. It recovers, only to leap and join itself to the back of my hand with hooked feet. I fling it off with a “Yugh!” and throw one of the dog pans over it, not to kill it, just to keep it from landing on me again. The black dog wages his own war against non-mammalian nature, swallowing every fly he can catch, which is quite a few. I know what’s strange. These people are on vacation. Aha. I see the wisdom in lugging bicycles to the forest. The kids are gone. Between cracking pistachios I swat mosquitoes. I don’t like this vacation campground. Vacations end.
The neighbor’s Cocker Spaniel whines. Dad points to the black dog, who lies peacefully under the trailer, and chides his dog with, “Look at him. Why can’t you be a good dog like that?”
The proto-male is back. He walks to my camp spot, hits the top of a stump with a hatchet, sets the pointed pole in the break, and twists it. His dad yells, “Get back here.”
Damn her. Mom has the bar-b-que going and the smoke says, ribs. Damn these people who have real lives. I open my last can of tuna and smother it with horseradish.
Raging campfires burn near discrete tents and bulky motorhomes. Inside my trailer, sealed against packs of mosquitos, I burn bug candles. Cool air pushes the curtains aside and I see toothpick pines silhouetted against the last of the sky. It’s 10 p.m. and another sensitive soul runs his generator for our lullaby.
I attempt breakfast at a timbered place designed to look like it’s part of Yellowstone Park, but which is privately owned. It’s cute and the prices are ugly. I watch a man, his wife and their daughter, who all look like Captain Kangaroo, eat pancakes, while I despair of receiving a cup of coffee. I take an oath: Today I am a tourist. I will not malign tourists.
The burned-but-standing trees are thick like whiskers. Scorched bark has fallen in patches from the light trunks to make thickets of painted pony legs. Shadows stripe the road and sunlight flickers as it does in the forests of Rashoman. Pictographs of burning trees are posted along the highway as if no one would otherwise observe that there had been a fire. Lewis Lake is a sheet of gray agate with an ashen band of trees crystallized between it and the sky; the monotony is suspended briefly, then once again the road climb’s the porcupine’s back.
Swept along in a strange procession, in a great American rite, I join the cortege to Old Faithful; but don’t stop. I drive on toward Mammoth Hot Springs across the continental divide, which has mystic significance to people interested in water rights. I stop at Beryl Spring where a deep blue pool of clear water gurgles and earth gases have a hissy fit to one side. The erupting water flows into an iron sewer grate, then travels beneath the road and into the Gibbon River where a man in bathing trunks sits in a lawn chair.
Gasoline at Mammoth is pricey at $1.49 a gallon and I buy just enough to take us to Jackson Hole. A man in front of me at the food concession extricates $33.00 from an extremely tight jeans pocket to pay for lunch for his family of four. I eat myself silly on a cheeseburger, fries, black bean soup and coffee.
At last we enter open high country where among the sage, a bizzillion magenta, blue, yellow and cream wild flowers rest under a dark sky burdened with heavy clouds. I recognize asters, lupine, clover and flax, wild roses and dandelions, too. Bunch grass grows two and three feet tall. Groves of trees cling to the green hills like the last of a shaggy winter coat. Peaks rise beyond and beyond and beyond. Hail strikes black trunks and silver branches. Low clouds pass like smoke. Two cyclists enveloped in rain gear pass in the gloom.
“Hi. Guess where I am?” Tourists in neon ponchos flee the site of Old Faithful. I’m half frozen and completely wet.
“Let’s see. Where were you the last time you called?”
“I’m at Old Faithful.”
“Really? Where’d you call from last time?”
“I dunno. Lander?”
“No. You called after that.”
“Dad, I’m at Old Faithful. It’s not like it used to be. It’s short.”
“Let’s see. I read something about that.”
“Dad… I’m outside in the rain and it’s getting dark but I can see Old Faithful spewing steam while I’m talking to you.”
He didn’t get the mystery of it and I couldn’t explain it. I’d been overcome by Yellowstone magic, that’s all.