Day 22: Into Yellowstone
I rode out of Chico Hot Springs around 11:30 am on Tuesday September 2. I was a new man, thanks to the stress recovery program I call “five S” – sleep, soak, supper, Swedish massage, and someone you love who loves you back. Chico gave Tania and I all the tools we needed, and at the highest quality. Don’t miss this place. She and I agreed to meet at the Yellowstone gate in Gardner, about 30 miles south, in two hours.
The rain had stopped and low clouds had broken up; in the cold sunshine, we could finally see Emigrant Peak. I followed River Road through Paradise Valley until it joined Route 89 and started up Yankee Jim Canyon, with the Yellowstone River rushing over rocks just below the highway. About 20 miles into the ride, I saw an historic marker. It said that the other side of the canyon had a remnant of the original wagon road built by James “Yankee Jim” George in the 1860s. This road became the first Yellowstone Highway and was used by early automobile tourists who bravely set out in their Model Ts. They drove to the park at bicycle speeds from the eastern terminus of the highway at St. Paul, or the western end at Seattle.
In the mid-1920s the Yellowstone Highway was incorporated into US Route 20, and the present route was blasted out of the opposite wall of the canyon. Tania’s graduate thesis is on early tourist accommodations along US Route 20. I decided she had to see this, so I turned around and met her coming up the canyon in her car. Together we drove up a dirt road on the west side of the canyon.
Yankee Jim operated a profitable toll road for miners and early Yellowstone visitors. He was also a famous Western drinker and teller of tall tales, thanks in part to Rudyard Kipling, who wrote about a visit with him in 1890. Jim fought the Northern Pacific Railroad’s plans to build a rail line up the canyon until they agreed to improve his road, and a one-mile section of this roadbed survives. It is about eight feet wide, paved with granite boulders from the river, and has a long rock wall on an upgrade. The most thrilling discoveries for a scholar of the era known as “Tin Can Tourism” were remnants of two advertisements painted on rocks. We squinted until we saw “Souvenirs at Moore’s, Gardiner” and “Grotto Café, Gardiner.” I tried to imagine someone from my great-grandparent’s generation put-putting along this road eighty-five years ago. It was probably similar in some ways to the trip I’m doing. There are a lot of unknowns, you’re at the mercy of the weather, you’re carrying your own food and water, and doing your own repairs. Cars whined along the other side of the canyon at 70 mph. Before long we joined them, and not long after that we were in Yellowstone Park.
The massage therapist at Chico told me not to miss Boiling River, just inside the northern entrance to the park. The river is the outflow from Mammoth Hot Springs, and people have build rock dams at the point where this stream of hot water enters the cold water of the Gardner River. The current is swift, and the transition from too-hot to too-cold water can be made by moving laterally just a foot or two. But if you get a spot that’s just right, it’s a great place. Next we visited Mammoth Hot Springs, and we gawked and clicked away at our cameras just like all the Asian and German tourists on the boardwalk with us. We continued on and saw a bison, as well as a elk cow prancing with a young male while an older male bugled his outrage from across the road. Then we arrived at Canyon Village, rejoined Jim, Sara and Paul, cooked a meal on the tailgate of Jim’s pickup, and settled into a good motel bed for $70, albeit with thin walls.
Day 23: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Morning came up misty and cool. It was a good time to do laundry and look around Canyon Village. The laundromat was excellent, but there was no Internet connection available anywhere. I was done by noon and the skies were clearing up, so we took a loop hike that included a long section of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. We parked in a lot near the Upper Falls and walked across the road & to the south, on a trail leading to Clear Lake. Almost immediately Tania found a large dump site strewn with broken crockery, probably from the old Canyon Lodge. We spent maybe a half-hour looking through the dump like amateur archaeologists, excitedly pointing out maker’s marks and speculating on the purposes of he old bits of metal we uncovered. This may be unusual behavior for tourists, but it made us happy. And if any rangers are reading, we didn’t take anything.
Further along on the hike, we saw a bald eagle and then, incredibly, an adult male gray wolf running along the opposite shore of Clear Lake. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and are doing well; there was no doubt that this was a wolf, with his long snout and muscular haunches, although he was too far away to photograph. Then things got even better: we came upon a big bubbling mud pot, then several of them, and then a whole field of them. Then, without any warning, we reached the rim of the canyon. So much has been written about this place that I won’t attempt to describe it any further, but if you haven’t seen it, you should.
We walked to Artist’s Point and took the 32nd-billionth photo of it, and standing there I remembered my Uncle Vincent and the last time I had been here. I was 15 and had not traveled much outside of my home in a small town in south Florida, and had never seen the West. Vincent was a kind great-uncle, never married, who had recently bought a new Winnebago and was eager to use it. He offered to take my older brother and I on a vacation, and given our personalities at the time, I think my parents would have been eager to agree to the plan.
Vincent loved to drive and take pictures, but he was not a hiker. We drove long days, and I remember mostly reading Atlas Shrugged in the back of the camper and brooding about how bad everything was and how no one understood me. Then we pulled into Yellowstone and Vincent parked at Artist’s Point, and we got out and I was dumbstruck. I wanted to walk into that vast wild landscape and never come out, and that feeling has never left me completely. Standing there thirty-four years later, I wanted to thank him – but of course he has been dead for 20 years. So thanks, Vince, if you’re logging in from the Great Beyond.
We capped off this incredible hike by hiking down Uncle Tom’s Trail, which uses about 300 steel-mesh stairs to get to a point near the bottom of the Lower Falls. Then we went back to the room to rest, because at 8,000 feet you get tired pretty fast. Then we went to the dining room of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel for dinner, to thank Jim and Sara for inviting me to do the trip. I had prime rib of bison.
I believe that if you want a species to thrive, and it’s edible, you should eat it. This helps create a market for the species and ensures that people will keep lots of them around so they’ll have a robust gene pool. There are lots of other reasons for environmentally concerned people to eat bison, besides the fact that it is delicious and much better for you than beef. You can get bison at Wegmans and many other supermarkets. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always write the Yellowstone Foundation a big check.
Day 24: Hot Stuff
Yellowstone’s “Grand Tour” road is how most visitors see the park, and since we didn’t bring backpacks and had only a day left, that’s what we did. We drove to the Mud Volcano site and saw some more amazing bubbling stuff, and then went back to the Hotel to inspect the tile work in the main fireplace (we discovered that it was made by Batchelder of Los Angeles in 1923). Next we stopped at Yellowstone’s Natural Bridge and hiked there for a few hours, seeing marmots aplenty. Then it was on to the Old Faithful geyser basin with its many wonders, and also the many wonderful 19th century names that people gave to them, and also the incredible log architecture of the Old Faithful Inn. Then it was back to Canyon Lodge, where Paul took us all out for a fine meal.
Day 25: Riding The Park
Our wonderful break was over, and it was time to ride. We were up at 7am, and Tania left for her plane at 8am. We were ready to ride by 8:30am, but there was fog and it was cold – maybe 45 degrees. We waited at the visitor’s center for an hour until the fog started to lift, and off we went. The mist was lifting and we rode past a herd of buffalo in a frosted field, then south along the Yellowstone River. It was way too cold to be comfortable, but also way too beautiful to believe.
We turned onto the East Entrance Road and rode along Yellowstone Lake, and before too long we saw hot springs and fumaroles rising on its shores. “Early park visitors reported that the nearness of hot and cold water simplified their camping problems,” reports the Wyoming edition of the WPA Guide. “A fish pulled from the lake near the cone could be dangled in the pool and cooked before it was removed from the line.”
Jim really wanted to see a grizzly bear. He stopped at clearings and scanned the horizon in vain. He had seen an eagle and thought he might have seen a wolf, but he really wanted to bag a griz, at least visually. We started up through the Abrasoka Mountains toward Sylvan Pass, a rise of only 900 feet made much more difficult by the elevation and the biting cold. The pass, at 8,500 feet, is a particularly nasty piece of highway. It is totally barren of plants, a massive ditch of gravel and boulders between two high cliffs, and it screams “avalanche” even when there’s no snow there. They used to close this pass in the winter, but the word is that businessman in Cody, Wyoming called up an old friend of theirs, Dick Cheney, who ordered that the pass be kept open in the winter no matter what so the tourists would keep coming. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s just another reason to hate the guy.
The downhill run from Sylvan Pass was perhaps the longest of the trip, and to me was the most pleasant of them all so far. We only have one more mountain pass to go before the plains begin, and this downhill run was – no lie – 30 miles long. It began with a sharp descent through high peaks (that’s Grizzly Peak, el. 10,400, behind Jim and I). Shortly after we left the park, Jim finally got his wish and hugged a (wooden) grizzly bear at the Pahaska Teepe café and motel. Then the road sloped into a more gradual downhill next to the beautiful Shoshone River. We rode past tall brown cliffs pocked with caves where Shoshone Indians had lived, through the Shoshone National Forest, which is the oldest in the U.S., and it just kept getting warmer as we went lower. There was a tailwind, too. The roadside was undeveloped except for the odd dude ranch, and it was also extraordinarily beautiful in a John Ford Western movie kind of way. We pulled into a US Forest Service campground near Wapiti, having done 65 miles, and the river’s rushing sound kept me sound asleep all night long.
Day 26: Cody
We set off around 8:30 on Saturday morning with 30 miles to go until Cody, where we would stay the night. Paul’s plane was set to leave from Cody at noon on Sunday. The ride was fast and we were in Cody by 10:30 am. I had ordered a new rear wheel at the local bike shop, but it hadn’t arrived yet. After some wrangling, I had it shipped ahead to Sheridan, where it will be installed on Tuesday. We spent the rest of the day looking around, and I caught up on all the e-mail and blog business that had accumulated in the five days I was offline.
In the afternoon we visited the bar of the Irma Hotel, built by Buffalo Bill and named for his daughter. The bar was given to him by Queen Victoria, one of his many fans. This guy was perhaps the most brilliant promoter the U.S. has ever seen. The town named after him appears to have a thriving economy more or less completely based on his image and reputation.
Jim, Paul, and Sara went out for a farewell dinner while I stayed behind to finish this up. Tomorrow we say goodbye to Paul and head east through high flat country to the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Monday we climb to the top, and Tuesday we go down. Then it’s on to the Great Plains.