Sunday, September 12, 2010

Random thoughts on a road trip to Yellowstone

Old Faithful
Bison Bull

Grand Tetons at dusk
Posting in September is getting off to a slow start due to taking a break from re-introducing American history to my university charges, to zoom off on a combination fly-road trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone this past week. The trip was a chance for reflection on America in the week prior to the anniversary of September 11. The reminders of that coming milestone began as it does for all who fly when one quays up to deposit the contents of pocket, belt and shoes into the gray bins and pad through the arches as an overweight person in blue, spies you with feigned suspicion that you have a IED firmly lodged in your rectum.

Safely on the ground in Salt Lake, the one hour delay at the rental counter is rewarded by an apology and an upgrade. Seeking out the upgrade, I found a fire-engine red Dodge Charger 3.5 waiting to make me an easy mark for every state trooper for the duration of the trip. The car was a blast, and after plugging in the GPS, we were off via a series of back roads that meandered back and forth across the border of Wyoming and Idaho as we cruised north at a pace equal to the fabled Cannon Ball Run.  As we traveled along vast tracts of open land where cut hay waited the winter and Black Angus grazed oblivious of their fate to grace someones dinner plate. My wife being the consumate urban deweller remarked that we owed a debt of gratitude to people who chose to live their lives raising the food that sustains those whose coastal and urban lives are sometimes humored by pundits and celebrities who poke fun at the residents of what has politically been dubbed the fly-over states. She went on to note that no where in the world is there a country so blessed with bounty and good fortune.

Arriving at Teton Village, we checked in and began our stay by taking a ride on the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram for a view of the mountains and valley that make this a modern day Switzerland for dozens of A-listers and the movers and shakers of our modern world. That evening a trip to the local Albertsons was a bit of a cultural shock to find it the most diversely stocked Albertson's grocery with an on-call sushi station and shelves and pantry stocked with items not found in my local Albertson's. Armed with groceries we retreated to enjoy the solitude only found in a mountain retreat.

The next day we got an early start driving north into the Grand Teton Park and on to Yellowstone to drive the circular route and experience the wonders of nature when she is just bubbling and belching below what is the thinnest point on the planet's skin. Old Faithful did not disappoint, nor did the two Bison bulls that squared off on the main trail 200 meters from the visitor center and gave the onlookers a thrill normally reserved for the Discovery Channel. The rangers deployed faster than a SWAT team keeping the crowds back as they nervously eyed the two bulls snorting and butting each other. Soon, one bull had had enough and he ambled off to lay alone, watching the victor bask amid his harem of cows power grazing before the on-rushing winter left them huddled near the steam vents.

Yellowstone for anyone who has never ventured there is worth the trip. I had been years before and this trip was supprised to find so many people from virtually everywhere crowding the wooden walkways to glimpse what nature was concocting in the bubbling grottos and mud pools. Some, like everywhere don't read the signs and proceed to touch or get too close to one of God's kenetic creatures. During one stop at the Midway Geyser Basin we watched as a visitor sat down on the boardwalk and plunged her feet into the orange bacteria that bloomed from the Grand Prismatic Spring and then used a coke can to scoop up a sample. When bystanders warned her about the danger, she responded that it wasn't hurting her and proceeded to scoop more orange mud. Within minutes, a ranger appeared and proceeded to end her mud bath. The park historian Lee Whittlesey has written a macabe book, Death in the Yellowstone and in this video, warns about the dangers lurking in this pristine corner of Wyoming.

The rest of the park, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Hayden Valley gave way to the Mud Volcano where the Dragon's Mouth Dragon's Mouth would be more appropriately named for a different orifice given the strong smell of sulfer that belched from the gray mud. The drive around the west shore of Yellowstone Lake, America's hightest alpine lake brought us back full circle.

The trip back to our condo was puncuatated with frequent citings of pronghorn antelope and around a quiet bend, on a back road in the Teton Park, a grazing moose ambled across our path in search of tubers in the nearby marsh. All in all, a great day that left us cleansed of the clutter of a hyper-uber existance, we settled in to another silent night's sleep in the shadow of the Grand Tetons.

Morning dawned cool, and my wife who had never ridden a horse wanted to go for a ride. We went to the local stable and signed up for a ride that would wind up the side of the canyon and return. When they matched us to horses, my big mouth mentioned that I had some experience riding and I drew Roscoe, a 15 1/2 hand horse that true to form could not pass up a patch of grass or green morsel on the trail. I was tasked to ride drag and we took off up the side of the mountain. Halfway into the trip, and after being deprived of his extra vittles, Roscoe's cinch had loosened that I noticed the saddle was slipping. I called a halt and tried to slide off. My wife began to pull on the reigns of her horse causing it to back it into mine and in a chain reaction led to my horse losing it's footing and sliding back off the trail. Suddenly I was sideways looking at the horses belly as he skidded backwards down a steep slope. I pulled my leg free and crashed to a thicket. The guide, now white-faced and fearing the worst, was struggling down the slope. I stood, dusted off and pronounced I was fit, and that it would not be a good ride without a spill. After getting Roscoe re-cinched, I re-mounted to continue on to a wonderful ride to the top and an over look of the valley. The return was uneventful and after dismounting my wife exclaimed she was done with horses as a mode of recreation or travel. For me, it was a nice revisit to a time when I rode every weekend, but there comes a time to let those times go.

That afternoon we took in a raft trip on the Snake River, and as the wind rose and the temperature dropped, our river guide struggle against the wind as he handed out blankets to lessen the shivers as we drifted against a headwind for ten miles. The trip, turned out to be the low point as the animals promised, seemed to have been driven away from the river bottoms by the wolf packs that had migrated south from Yellowstone to prey on the Elk and other herd animals in the park. Frozen, we staggered from the raft like survivors from the Titanic lifeboats and teeth chattering drove straight to the nearest roadhouse for a hot bowl of soup.

Our trip back to Salt Lake was another good road run as we traversed Teton Pass and down into the Teton Valley, formerly Pierre's Hole and fabled haunt of the mountain men in search of beaver pelts in the early 19th century. Miles of ready to be harvested fields trimmed our journey back to Salt Lake and after a short visit to the Great Salt Lake we prepared to board, ready to return to our ordered lives in the urban sprawl of Southern California.

But one more adventure waited. The humiliating perp walk through airport security gave way to waiting for our flight. After boarding we found ourselves in the row just in front of the window emergency exit where a young man whom I judged to be about 6'8" had settled in. We took our seats and were waiting for everyone to board when I overheard someone asking the guy behind me to move so that he could sit with his wife since he had chosen the window seat next to the emergency exit. The big guy explained that since this was a small 60 passenger plane that that was the only seat he could fit into. The guy began to argue that the big guy wasn't cooperating and insisted he move. The one attendant moved to ask the man and his wife to take one of the seats in the back where there were several. The guy began to berate the attendant that the airline would not allow him and his wife to sit by the window exit together. The next sound was the man shouting at the attendant not to push or shove him. Several passengers in front of me were watching and I suddenly realized that things could go south real fast. The attendant turned and went to the front of the plane and picked up to phone. I now was expecting we were going to witness the police coming onboard and removing the passenger who continued to complain about the airline. The cockpit door opened and the pilot stared back at the passenger and silence became the only sound in the cabin. The passenger took a seat in the back and the flight proceeded without trouble. The irony of this little vignette is that the guy spoke with an accent that indicated he was Middle Eastern. The reaction of the passengers as this was unfolding was a silent inditment that people are fearful. As I noted several guys were staring at this guy as he began to make his demands and I am sure that they were thinking the potential for the worst and making contingencies for taking the guy down. This was confirmed as we were waiting for our luggage and a tall guy was talking to another guy about the disruptive passenger. Both stated it crossed their minds that the guy was up to no good and they both had thought about taking him down if he continued to make trouble. Flying today makes everyone a little bit paranoid. Boorish behavior used to be just that, now nine years later it is a match waiting to be struck.

Back home this weekend, I watched a program about the last sixty minutes of American Flight 11 and my mind went back to that flight home. The guy was not going to do anything stupid, but I am sure most of the passengers in earshot were thinking about what to do if this guy was a threat. Shit happens and after the events of nine years ago our world will never be totally the same.

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