Intermezzo - Taking Out a Little Insurance
I call it "Intermezzo" because it's one of those 24-hour periods where I'll be between planned stops. I begin the day by traversing Trail Ridge Pass towing my 14,000 lb. trailer without incident and before I know it we’re coasting into Steamboat Springs.
Wow! Talk about a place where the “beautiful people” hang out. The setting is fabulous—a huge, green, open valley, miles across in every direction, surrounded by mountains. Dotted throughout the valley are the vestiges of old homesteads, which appeal to me immensely, but more prominent are the log “cabins” hanging off the sides of the mountains. A log cabin isn’t something over 6,000 square feet is it? Well, these are palatial. For good measure, on the main street I spot my first Lamborghini of the trip. And very likely my last.
Everything in town is spic-and-span, an animatronics village overstuffed with flower boxes, boutiques and hot women in halter tops, mostly riding bicycles. There must be some kind of commercial sign ordinance, because the tallest sign I see is the Golden Arches, and it’s top is only about 15 feet off the ground, not even as tall as the restaurant. Can you imagine not seeing McDonald’s from miles away? Anyway, the place is ostentatiously stunning this time of year, in a boob-job kind of way; but I bet it can be pretty dismal in winter if you’re not a snow-eater.
Soon after leaving Steamboat Springs, the countryside becomes more arid. It reminds me a lot of West Texas; those of you who’ve driven to El Paso have a pretty good picture of it, virtually treeless and covered in sage. For the record, I cross and re-cross both the continental divide and the old Oregon Trail several times. The thought of walking through this featureless landscape for weeks on end, harassed along the way by Cheyenne and Arapaho, freezing in the winter, broiling in the summer—well, let’s just say as a people we just don’t seem to possess that kind of gumption anymore. However, I must interject, we can stand in a welfare line for hours, and the pioneers never had to do that, thank you very much.
Overall, today is brutal. Not for me, but for The Queen Mary, though she performs flawlessly (knock on wood): 460 miles from Estes Park, CO to Pinedale, WY pulling the big trailer across some pretty forbidding topography. Toward the end I start feeling sorry for her and throttle it back a bit on the long, steady inclines where her computer-controlled cooling fan kicks in and starts screaming like a jet engine.
Finally comes the end of the day. I need a place to camp. Outside Pinedale, down a dirt road about 13 miles, lies a small wildlife management area called Soda Lake, so I take my chances and head that way, great plumes of dust trailing in clouds behind me. The lake appears to be about 100 acres and the part I see close up has sandy beach-like shores. It sits in a desolate bowl surrounded by low sage-covered hills. Through a gap in the hills I see the Wind River Mountain Range in the distance, sawing the sky with its jagged peaks.
At the water’s edge I spy in the distance three or four other campers, evenly spaced around the perimeter of the lake. At the exact spot I happen to set camp, I notice after a while the top plate of an elk skull, bits of flesh and hair still clinging to it, antlers sawed off. Soon I spot a few not-quite-dry bones scattered around.
Okay…we have a situation. This place is the very definition of isolation; 911 is not an option. So for the first time on my trip I slip a clip into my Glock and keep it handy. I will have a bed-mate tonight. I'm thinking Deliverance.
First thing this morning I slide the clip out of the Glock, double-check the chamber to make sure it’s empty, and stow the gun. Like insurance on my house or my vehicles, I think of it as insurance on my person: a necessary evil. More for the sake of my family than myself, I’d hate to be defenseless in the unlikely event I should need the ultimate insurance.
But enough of that. From Pinedale to Madison Campground is only 128 miles. I figure 2-3 hours should get me there.
What I don’t count on is the traffic congestion in Jackson Hole, which slows me considerably. Then, once finally clear of traffic and heading north again at highway speed, I round a bend and am confronted with the most dramatic sight I’ve seen so far: the full panorama of the Grand Teton Range. These are the youngest of mountains, and rise vertically from the plains without the intervening buffer of foothills. There are numerous pull-outs and view points along the highway and I take advantage of many of them, if not to take pictures, at least to gaze in wonder at the sight.
I have to drive through Grand Teton National Park to get to Yellowstone, and I regret that I don’t have more time to spend there. Among its many beauties is the large Jenny Lake, formed after the last Ice Age when retreating glaciers in Yellowstone left behind a moraine that dammed the water up.
I often wonder if, as the last Ice Age was ending, there were global warming alarmist cavemen, jumping up and down waving their arms saying, “Ugh, see what your new toy, fire, is doing to our environment! The ice is melting! The glaciers are retreating! What will happen to our lovely land when they’re all gone? We must stamp out fire now or we’re doomed!”
What an irony that today some of the most revered, beautiful landscapes in the world were carved by those glaciers, now disappeared. Graceful bowl-shaped valleys, meandering trout-filled flatland streams, magnificent forests rooted in the loose debris of countless moraines, rich midwestern topsoil, dozens of feet deep, on which we grow our food—all these are legacies of global warming. Contemplate what our world would be like if some caveman had it in his power to forestall the melting of the glaciers…. Human beings have never been great at anticipating unintended consequences.
But now I’ve lost the thread again. What I meant to say is that I finally arrive at Yellowstone, though I still have a 50 mile drive to reach my camp. Once I finally arrive, I’m assigned a tiny crescent-shaped “pull through” site with pine trees strategically placed so as to make access virtually impossible. I am reminded several times by the ranger that all tires and landing gear must be on the pavement, and nothing may touch dirt.
Well, I spend a full half hour jockeying the rig back and forth, climbing in and out of the truck to spot myself, until I finally manage to barely kiss a tree with the tail light on the camper, shattering it. But that’s minor; it could be worse, right?
Yes. It could be worse.
After another several minutes trying to shoehorn myself into this awfully engineered site, I hear a SQUEEEEK. I jump out of the truck once more and find that, sure enough, another pine tree has moved just enough scrape some paint off The Queen Mary's right rear quarter panel, barely rippling the sheet metal in the process.
Now it’s time to go for broke. I feel like everything’s wrecked anyway. Maneuvering like a madman, at last I manage to squeeze everything into the site with nothing touching any dirt. I’ve never experienced anything like this in 15 years of RVing, and I’m a little shaken. God knows how I’ll ever get this thing out of here when it comes time to leave. But that’s a week from now; I'll worry about it then.
In the meantime, I spend the evening in recovery mode finishing The Kill Artist, first in a series of cloak and dagger thrillers written by Daniel Silva that feature an Israeli master assassin named Gabriel Allon, a kind of Jewish Jack Bauer. My brother-in-law Wilson turned me on to Silva. Thanks, Wilson!
As is my habit at every venue, I spend my first full day at Yellowstone doing the touristy stuff. Visit the information center, see the exhibits, watch the video, read the park newspaper, study the NPS map.
Then I visit the primary thermal sites along the highway between Old Faithful Center and Madison Junction, about 16 miles. All kinds of features are visible: mud pots, thermal pools, geysers, paint pots, etc. This is geology rampant. Nowhere else on the planet is there such a number and variety of undisturbed thermals.
Some of the pools, a deep sublime aquamarine blue, are so enticing I almost want to dive in. Only problem is, they’re near the boiling point and steam rises off them like a thick fog. I remember as a child both the fascination and the fear I felt as we trod the boardwalks in the thermal areas. I was warned at the time that the crust was only eggshell thin off the sides of the boardwalk, and one misstep would send me crashing through, plunging me into the depths of the earth.
I see Old Faithful for the first time in 55 years. I was nine or ten when my family took a vacation to Yellowstone while we lived in New Mexico. I haven’t done the math, but at an average of once every 84 minutes, I wonder how many times the famous geyser has erupted skyward during those years. Faithful indeed.
So far I’ve only been through a relatively small part of the park, but I’ve seen tens of thousands of acres, virtually all of which shows the effects of the massive fires of 1988. Most of the pines are young and have reached a height of only 15-20 feet. Their dead ancestors lie like jumbled piles of bleached bones on the forest floor.
There is little sign of fire on the toppled trunks; all the scorched bark has fallen away. I suppose that after the crowns of the trees were destroyed by fire, they lost the means of photosynthesis, died, and were blown down by relentless winter winds after their roots rotted and weakened. Even though the fires are a natural process, I’m disappointed and saddened at what I see. But Mother Nature has no regard for human sensitivities.
It turns out to be long day of walking around on the boardwalks. I also include a short two mile hike up a river gorge to Mystic Falls, where the Little Firehole River tumbles off the Madison Plateau in a deafening cascade almost 100 feet high.
Back at camp, I build a large salad for dinner and settle down to begin the second of Daniel Silva’s series, The English Assassin.
Falling Through the Earth
I waken this morning before dawn to the sound of rain pattering on the roof and a chilly 50 degrees. Too sweet the warmth of my bed, I semi-doze until 8:00 o’clock. What was I going to do today? Oh, yes! Hike to Fairy Falls and Imperial Geyser. Well, the rain will postpone that because I don’t have adequate foul weather gear. I’ll have to look into that.
Instead, I decide to drive to West Yellowstone, MT, a small town just outside the western boundary of the park about 16 miles from camp. Once in town I top off the truck with fuel, then walk up and down the main street, which sports a covered sidewalk—fortunate, considering the weather. I find that the local McDonald’s has free wifi, which I use to post the past 3-4 days of blogs and check my email.
By the way…I appreciate those of you who read this stuff (some of whom I find, to my surprise, I’ve never met.) The truth is it’s only partially a travelogue; the rest is a glimpse of my internal journey.
On my way back from town, the skies brighten and the rain slows to a few sparse drops. I spot an elk cow with her baby across the river that runs beside the road and stop to take a few pictures of them grazing, oblivious to, or at least unconcerned, by my presence.
Following an impulse, I decide to take a detour to Norris Geyser Basin, which contains a variety of geological freaks in its many acres. I hit the boardwalk and begin the tour, taking two or three pictures before the camera battery dies. My backup battery is in the trailer so I take the short route through the basin, with the intent to return another day.
I should point out that my fears as a child of falling through the earth were actually quite rational. I read a sign that says a dozen tourists have done just that and been scalded to death. Hundreds of others have been badly burned over the years. If you have a wardrobe malfunction and part of your clothing blows away from the boardwalk, you are not to fetch it. You are to call a ranger. The ranger will assess the risk of retrieving it. That explains the number of hats, scarves, gloves, etc. that I’ve seen laying twenty or a hundred feet off the trail. Serious business.
Up Mt. Washburn
The central third or so of Yellowstone, where all the geothermal weirdness takes place, is actually the collapsed throat, or caldera, of a massive volcano. At roughly 45 miles in diameter, it’s the largest caldera in the world, and likewise the largest active volcano. During its last major eruption 640,000 years ago, Yellowstone volcano spread a blanket of ash as far west as the Pacific, as far north as Canada and as far south as San Antonio. The Yellowstone area registers over 1,000 earthquakes, large and small, every year. The caldera heaves up and down several feet over a decade, like a sleeping monster.
It’s eerie to think I’m standing on the very top of the largest pustule of magma on earth, extending from several hundred feet beneath me at its shallowest, to hundreds of miles deep far away in Utah. That’s a huge volume of magma, under tremendous pressure, straining to pop. When she blows—and she will again one day, right here—life on earth as we know it will change. Al Gore, get your speech ready.
This morning presents at 40 degrees, with a cold fog shrouding the landscape. I’m wondering whether it will spoil the views or if it will soon burn off. I decide to take my chances that the weather will improve and make preparations for a 3.1 mile (6.2 round trip) day-hike to the top of Mt. Washburn, where a classic old fire watchtower—one of the few still in active use around the country—sits squarely atop the mountain. Most watchtowers have been mothballed; first, because concepts of wildfire management have changed in the last few decades and, second, any necessary surveillance can be done more cheaply by airplane.
It’s about a 50 minute drive to the trailhead; by the time I get there the fog is gone and the sky is clear azure. The trail to the top is actually a navigable gravel road used to bring supplies to the, ahem, Lone Ranger in the tower, who spends all summer there alone, on duty seven days a week until the snows begin to fall in September. The problem with this road is that it starts at about 8700 feet and assumes a relentless 9% grade all the way to the top at 10,243 feet, a 1400 foot elevation gain without the respite of even a single step downhill. I thought I was in pretty good walking shape, having averaged 6-8 miles per day for the past several months. And I thought I was getting fairly well acclimatized to altitude, having spent over 10 days above 7000 feet.
This, however, is not the case. By the time I’m halfway up the mountain I’m gasping. My legs are okay, but my lungs protest. I have to stop at about every third snowplow marker—about 150 yards—to catch my breath. Having smoked for 20 years (in another lifetime,) I guess my oxygen-exchange ratio is lacking.
But I should digress here for a moment while I’m thinking about dying. While driving to the trailhead I stopped at Canyon Village, one of the more developed areas of the park with a lodge, store, gas station, restaurant and education center. It’s here that I discover I've forgotten my wallet. No ID. I’ve come too far to go back and get it, so on a 3×5 card I scribble, “In Case Of Emergency…” with my name, Jane’s name and phone number, and the license number of my truck. I stuff the card into my pocket, figuring if anyone should find me splayed out on the trail, this will help prevent a great deal of aggravation for them.
To continue: I notice, even in my state of inebriative oxygen deprivation, that heavy clouds are starting to form over the mountains. This encourages me to quicken my pace, to the extent I can. I move doggedly upward, upward, imagining I’m one of the storied adventurers who climbed Mt. Everest without oxygen tanks.
And then I’m at the summit. My relief cannot be overstated. I sit for a spell until my breath fully returns, then begin to wander around the watchtower. There is an enclosed observation deck one flight up, and above that the Lone Ranger’s residence. While we’re not allowed into the residence, there’s a photo of it on display: one room, containing a stove, sink, bed, desk, books and various minor furnishings. It’s probably about 600 square feet, surrounded by fully 360 degrees of windows, no walls. Nice view. I have to wonder how the isolation, the rapidly shifting weather, the unmatched beauty in all directions, would affect a person who spends months at a time there. And where do I apply?
The clouds now assume a threatening aspect and force my decision to leave. The best part of the story is that it all goes downhill from here.
Bison Buffaloes Tourists
This morning a lone bison grazing in bucolic oblivion by the side of the road causes a monumental traffic snafu. Since there are no traffic pullouts along this section of highway, people do exactly what you’d expect: they just stop, grab their cameras, leave their cars in the traffic lane and stand on the road taking snapshots. This has the immediate effect of causing the steady stream of cars entering the park to back up, bumper-to-bumper, for nearly five miles.
I’m heading into West Yellowstone, leaving the park to grab a McDonald’s wifi signal (best thing on their menu.) Traffic is much sparser going my direction, so I don’t have a problem in my lane. But an hour and a half later, when I’ve finished at McDonald’s and have done some grocery shopping—you guessed it: same damn bison. I add myself to the back of the line and creep along, slower than rush hour in a rainstorm, while everybody stops to take their turn snapping photographs. There’s nothing to be done except enjoy the scenery and exercise patience. Finally after almost an hour it’s my turn to peel off the head of the line and resume highway speed. I’m soon able to stash my groceries in the fridge and contemplate my next move.
My choice of activities is limited because I seem to have injured myself—badly enough to force me to walk with a limp. It’s not the result of a particular incident, but more the accumulation of stress over a period of time. There’s a shooting pain in the bottom of my right heel every time I step on it. I’ve felt some similar discomfort in the past while doing my daily walks. But nothing has hobbled me like this. I’m sure I aggravated it yesterday during the long slog on Mt. Washburn, where I began to feel it on the descent. This morning when I get out of bed I can hardly walk at all.
I decide to rest the foot and take the 100-mile drive around Grand Loop Road, which is roughly concentric with, but smaller than the Yellowstone caldera. For several miles the road hugs the shoreline of Yellowstone Lake, largest mountain lake in North America. It’s fascinating to realize that hidden beneath the lake’s surface the same kind of geothermal events are bubbling away as can be seen in the geyser basins. Anyway, along the road there are seemingly limitless pullouts, side roads, exhibits, vistas and—yes—bison. The picture above shows what happens when two bison get together and decide to really buffalo the tourists…. They stand motionless like that for a good 20 minutes, blocking traffic.
In a couple of places, particularly in Hayden Basin, the road passes through herds of hundreds of bison. I feel a kind of wistfulness when I think back to the days when tens of millions of these beasts roamed freely across the land; when, in fact, the whole continent was as unspoiled as the 95% of Yellowstone that tourists never get to see, the backwoods.
In spite of my injury I decide to take an easy 2 mile (limping) walk through Norris Geyser Basin, a collection of pearlescent pools, mud pots, paint pots, roaring steam vents and, of course, geysers.
It’s remarkable that there are as many sounds and odors emanating from the earth as there are varieties of geothermal features. Sounds include gurgling, roaring, dragon-like hissing, slurping, blooping, simmering with a staccato crackle, and great guttural exhalations that sound like an extended groan from deep within the earth.
Some smell of sulfur, some have a pleasant scent hinting of chocolate or leather, some have odors I can’t identify as anything familiar, and some just plain old smell like farts. When I happen to pass through their steam plumes along the boardwalk, the heat is withering. You have to think of Hell.
P.S. Just a reminder: if you haven’t taken advantage of it already, you can click on an image to make it larger.
On the Mend and Rarin' to Go
I feel like my foot, though somewhat better, still isn’t ready for the stress of any real hikes—though I have several in mind. I want to be sure I’m 100% when I get to Glacier National Park five days from now; I’ll continue to rest it today.
So this morning I settle about some mundane tasks: washing out my woolen hiking socks, charging the house batteries with the generator, checking tire pressures and oil level, gluing together the broken tail light lens on the trailer, etc. I remove the bicycle from its rack on the trailer ladder and take a spin through the campground which, at over 200 sites, is large. Probably at least 80% of sites are vacated every day and new campers move in. It’s a kaleidoscopic show.
Speaking of campers, I’ve walked down a row of parked cars at the visitor center and counted 18 before I see a duplicate state license plate. (I'm surprised there aren't more Texans here.) There are copious numbers of foreigners: Germans, who tend to travel as couples or families; French, who do likewise; and Japanese—lots of Japanese—who mostly move in herds like bison. Oh, and lots of motor-bikers, who represent a subculture of their own and also exhibit a herding instinct, sometimes migrating in groups of 40-50. I hear British and Australian accents, as well as Arabic and some Eastern European languages. Probably Chinese and Korean, too, though my ear can’t distinguish them rom each other.
But I veered off topic again. I build a large salad for late lunch, enjoy a short siesta, then decide to make a quick drive to Gibbon Falls, about six miles up the road. Turns out the falls are nice, but rather average for this part of the country. I drive a bit farther to Firehouse Falls but at 84 feet they’re in the same category as Gibbon—pretty but unspectacular.
My gimpy foot is feeling a lot sturdier by this evening, so tomorrow I plan a hike to Fairy Falls. We’ll see how it goes.
Fairy Falls and Incidentals
One of my motivations for hiking to Fairy Falls is that the trail leads around the back side of the Grand Prismatic Spring, the largest hot spring in the park, and certainly one of the most stunning (for scale, see below; note the people standing on the boardwalk.) Across the trail from the spring is a steep 300 foot hill that I scramble up to get a better perspective on water’s surface.
Though the photo pales in comparison, you get a sense of the spring’s indescribable blue color, rimmed with orange. The colors are so intense that the rising steam is iridescent blue, shading to electric orange as it wafts over the outer rim. At first I think I’m seeing a rainbow effect; then I realize the steam’s color is reflected from below. The colors are the result not of minerals—as you might expect—but of microscopic organisms that thrive in the superheated acidic environment. Only recently have scientists discovered these organisms, and it’s estimated that less than 1% of over 10,000 varieties have been identified. They’re being studied partly to try and understand what types of life-forms we might encounter in outer space.
Anyway, after taking a few pictures I slide back down the hill and continue toward Fairy Falls. The area I’m hiking through was devastated by the 1988 fires. The bleached skeletons of large pine trees lie in chaotic disarray across the landscape, as though a great giant had begun a game of pick-up-sticks, then abandoned it. Naturally seeded young pines are growing in their place, as well as bountiful fields of wildflowers. I feel like I’m walking simultaneously through both a cemetery and a nursery.
Park rangers say that a forest of lodgepole pine is naturally destroyed by fire every 150 to 300 years; this forest has had 23 years to begin the regenerative cycle, a process it’s undergone countless times over tens of thousands of years. So while I grieve the loss of old-growth forest, as I might anything beautiful and beloved, I realize at the same time it’s only human indulgence that conceives and sustains the grief.
I reach Fairy Falls, a lovely 200-foot ribbon tumbling over rocky cliffs into a dark pool below. But I can’t linger long, as once again storm clouds are beginning to stand up. At only 5.2 miles, this was a short hike. Nevertheless, by the end my foot is beginning to bother me again, forcing me into an unnatural gait. I should rest again tomorrow.
Moments after I return to camp late in the late afternoon, a group of six bicyclists rolls into the campsite next to mine. Their bikes are loaded down with sidesaddles in the back and racks fore and aft. They’re a ragtag looking bunch, not wearing the sleek tights and expensive gear of “serious” bikers. They set up camp under small polygonal nylon tarps stretched taut between trees, eschewing even the lightest tents to save weight.
Matt, Dan, Quinn, Ben, Jason and Chelsea are their names; five guys and a gal. They’re twenty-somethings cycling from Seattle to Key West, 4300 miles. One of the group plans to remain in Florida, another is a seasonal ski instructor who’ll follow the snow come winter, and the rest—well, let’s just say the rest are keeping their options open.
I’m not clear what their connection is since they’re from scattered parts the country—New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin, Washington, and elsewhere. Last year they hiked the Appalachian Trail together and then asked, “What next?” The idea was hatched to meet in Seattle and bike across the country, subsisting on Doritos and beer and the kindness of strangers.
Ruminations on the Bear
Not a lot going on today, just tinkering, as once again I need to rest my injured foot. I ride my bike awhile, inspired by the long-distance bikers I befriended yesterday. I don’t comprehend how they manage, day after day, for weeks and months, carrying with them only the barest of necessities, never knowing where they’ll sleep that night. I guess it has to do with them being 40 years younger than me….
But meantime, let me tell you something I’ve been thinking.
I’ve been thinking about the news that a lone hiker was recently mauled by a grizzly in Glacier National Park, my next destination. Fortunately the man survived the attack, but he remains hospitalized. Since I’m traveling and hiking solo, I read the story with the most intense interest.
The incident is just one example of something I’ve occasionally brooded on since entering these mountains.
How many solitary human beings, from pre-Columbian hunter-gatherers, to European explorers, adventurers, trappers, prospectors or simply the unfortunate lost, have been swallowed up by the mountain fastness never to be heard from again? How many human bones, with their accompanying wreckage of arrowheads, beads, tin cookware, coins, buckles, shovel blades, guns—the indestructible tools of man—lie yet hidden in some remote canyon or secluded alpine valley, undiscovered and forgotten by generations? How many wives and children never again saw a husband or father who set out for food never to return; how many lived out their lives without the consolation of knowing his fate?
Bears aren’t the only danger, of course. Yellowstone, uniquely, holds a special horror: the unsuspecting can crash in an instant through the earth’s crust and be dissolved below in pools of acid. Mountain men have for ages succumbed in solitude to broken leg, treacherous ice, avalanche, lion, or sudden storm that freezes them solid before they can shelter.
For example, a few years ago National Geographic published an article—you may recall it—about the body of a Stone Age man that was found by hikers high in the Italian Alps, preserved for thousands of years in solid ice. What was he doing on that mountain pass, alone? Where was he going, and what thought possessed him in his final moment? Who waited hopelessly for his arrival or return, or grieved for him?
The mountains can be a place of great desolation as well as ineffable beauty—perhaps the two are inseparable, I don’t know. But I’m certain that scattered throughout these Rocky Mountains lay the bones of the unredeemed, just as I’m certain that we’re all of us—every man, woman and child—mountain men, confronted with the absurd prospect of our own mortality. In the end, each of us must face the Bear alone.
This, Grasshopper, is the way of Nature, and the nature of the Way.
For those of you concerned, I have no intention of embracing the Bear anytime soon….
Today is my last in Yellowstone. There are the typical prosaic chores to be done: I go to town to do my laundry; clean up the scattered debris in the camper; hang up the bike; charge the batteries to be sure the slideouts will activate in the morning; and make sure everything is securely stowed for travel. This afternoon I return to the old Faithful Visitor Center to watch the introductory video I missed on the way into the park.
Finally, this evening just as I’m finishing Daniel Silva’s The English Assassin, the campground gets a quick thunderstorm accompanied by a bit of hail. Very appropriate accompaniment to the end of a spine-tingling novel.
Enjoyable as my stay in Yellowstone has been, I’m eager to get on the road again.
Tomorrow morning I’ll publish one more set of blogs at Mickey D’s in West Yellowstone. By tomorrow night I expect to be near the halfway point to Glacier—in or near Helena, MT. I can’t be sure, but it seems likely I’ll be able to locate a wifi signal in Helena. If not, I don’t know what technology I’ll find in Glacier; I may have to go dark for several days. Hope not. We’ll see.
Intermezzo - A Day on the Road
By seven o’clock this morning I dump the holding tanks on the trailer, top off the fresh water, and am driving down the road out of Yellowstone that parallels the meandering Madison River . As the elevation decreases, the steep mountain valleys give way to broad rolling expanses of green meadowland. The mountains become foothills, and on their sides the forest’s edge hangs like a hemline above the grassy expanses flowing up to meet the trees. Streams meander through the meadows and every several hundred yards I spot an angler standing in his waders, tempting trout.
Montana. Except for the tiny village of West Yellowstone just outside the park, I’ve never been to this state. Driving toward Helena I continue to descend and the ripe green grass is replaced by limitless rolling fields of yellow wheat. In the distance are still the mountains, always the mountains. They’re no longer jagged and fanged like the Rockies, rising above the treeline, piercing the clouds; now they have a smoother, calmer aspect and a sublime beauty that comes, perhaps, from understatement.
I stop in Helena to have The Queen Mary's oil changed and pick up some things from Walmart—the first Walmart I’ve seen since leaving Texas. In the back of my mind I’ve been thinking of overnighting at Walmart, and, indeed, I count at least a dozen RVs in the parking lot. But by the time I’m doneshopping it’s only 2:30, and sitting on the parking lot it’s a blistering 83 degrees. I decide to move on and add another 100 miles or so to the day’s journey.
I end up at Salmon Lake State Park, higher in elevation, cooler, and blessed with a view of a pristine pine-encompassed lake. Here I’ll spend the night; it’s only 139 more miles to Glacier.
But the best thing that happens to me today is this: I need to fill up with fuel, so when I see a station that sells diesel for $3.84 I think, hmmm, not bad. As I begin to pump, I notice that the little digital display on the pump reads $3.34. I don’t think much of it; probably some of the electronics have burned out. As my tank fills I start reading the signage on the pump and, lo, I discover I’m putting tax-free agricultural diesel into my truck. And this is right next to a pump that otherwise looks the exactly same but has the full price of $3.84—the highway price. I feel like I’ve won the lottery! Stupid Texan shows up, doesn’t know any better, and cheats the state out of 50 cents a gallon in tax. Once I’m full-up, you can imagine how fast I slunk (slinked?, slank?) out of there. Yeah, it feels good to beat The Man every once in a while!