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’s a beautiful talus slope, snow patches and a geology exhibit. I stop because the 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 up 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 trees 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, yet stand and I feel like a flea crawling on a porcupine. I stop to take pictures of dead trees, and then ask myself, Would I be doing this if this wasn’t Yellowstone?
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 underneath the trailer, but it’s no use. Having failed to buy groceries, I eat a PBJ for dinner. I parked the truck and trailer whopperjod so that my door faces into 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. This isn’t a particularily attractive place.
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 a matching T-shirt, and modeling a Dorothy Hamill haircut (will it never die?), waves and smiles at me. 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 and 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 forest scenes in Rashoman. Pictographs of burning trees are posted along the highway as if no one would otherwise observe that there had been a fire. Along Lewis Lake, 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. I don’t stop, but 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 sage, long grasses and a bizzillion wildflowers in magenta, blue, yellow and cream 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.
The Tetons have been waiting just around the corner from the buggy, tree-infested campground where we stayed the last two nights and my breath leaves me when I at last stumble onto them. Clouds kiss the distant tops and cascade down the narrow valleys; by 9:50 AM the peaks are socked in.
I fill out an accident report, at the edge of the Tetons, in the truck cab, in the rain. I forgot that it had to be filed with the state within ten days. Christ. I dented the fender of a parked car in Riverton, that’s all.
After a stop in Jackson at the bank and post office, I head for McDonald’s, where I must park blocks away due to crowds. While enjoying a Quarter Pounder with coffee in a secluded spot by a window, through which motor homes and pickups towing trailers can be seen arriving from the south, I read the local paper. In fact, a reporter for the paper whines that all the less desirable visitors (translation: trailers) come from Arizona. Suddenly, I’m not alone. An oversupply of soggy kids and parents who stubbornly wear shorts and sandles because this is summer vacation, even if it is fifty degrees and raining, chow down. A fiberglass statue of Ronald McDonald surveys all like the pope of red, big-toed shoes.
Gros Ventre campground looks cozy under a drizzly rain and I find a spot cleared of sagebrush, from which the south end of the Tetons will be visible should the weather clear. After much backing and forthing I get the trailer parked, which annoys the hell out of the Texans across the way who have taken over the area with two large tents, a custom van and a homemade trailer with two canoes strapped to the roof. The rest of the nearby spaces are claimed by tents that are just visible above the scrub. I tie out the dogs, set up the lawn chair, open a Diet Coke and retrieve a chocolate donut. Using the doorstep of the trailer as a table, and warmed by my raincoat, I read a magazine and wait for the mountains to appear. Instead, jet engines engage and rumble. A white, pencil-thin airplane rises from the valley floor and disappears against the clouds that obscure the Tetons.
The rain clears and birds grow bold. Hummingbirds vibrate like passing missiles and a brilliant blue something lands and leaves before I can see what it might be. An irritable bird with an orange head drops to the ground as if dead and sputters like an insect. Finally, the Tetons come into sight like a developing photograph, first as jagged tantalizing forms, then the details of snowfields, rock falls and shadowed canyons complete the image.
Like a nosy naturalist working under cover of twilight I catalogue camp styles. Dome domiciles dominate in solid blue or black, desert storm camouflage, grasshopper-shit yellow and silver. A minivan, doors open and hung with laundry, is guarded by a Dorothy Hamill mom. A sleek black Jaguar has conveyed an older woman and younger man thither to set up separate tents. A motorcyclist has no visible shelter. A mysterious silver trailer with black windows betrays no life signs. A family of five hides behind a red minivan, glued to a TV set. A mess: five tents, two tables, two trailers, a passenger van, seven canoes, laundry in the trees, pots, and dishes and trash on the ground surround several hooded figures who warm marshmallows over a pitiful fire. Lighted Tiki torches flicker at each end of a picnic table, but no one’s around. A few campers, who have tents too short to sit up in, sit in vans and cars and wait for bedtime.
Back inside the trailer the domestic stock is asleep. I light candles and make instant ice tea, which makes the taste of local water predictable, at least. Feelings have gone deep inside and I don’t know what I want except that life should go on forever as it is now. Perhaps it’s not so different from when I was a kid and summer trips provided relief from totalitarian conditions at home. I step from the trailer into blackness. Where did everyone go? I expected to see a trail of winking bonfires. Overhead, a handful of stars bite through the cloud cover.
“Goodnight,” I say.
The mercury surface of Jackson Lake is cut into panels by the restaurant’s window frames. A busboy does his work with alarming focus, wiping a table top back and forth, back and forth, and again at ninety degrees, back and forth, eyeing each completed sweep as if he is polishing rare wood instead of Formica. I give up on breakfast, order coffee-to-go and receive a tiny paper cupful.
My office today comes with a splendid view of the Tetons and the Gros Ventre Mountains: I parked the truck and trailer at the apex of a loop that sticks out from a huge parking area. This way I can stay awhile and not be in the way. The loop goes nowhere and can only be of use if the lot is packed.
With the lawn chair positioned by the rear of the trailer, its bumper supporting a beverage and a snack, I relax under the summer sun, pampered by a breeze, surrounded by fields of sage and wildflowers and the zigzag wall of the Tetons, which are hatted by fast-building popcorn clouds. Large demented flies grasp whatever they land on with such tenacity that they are easily swatted. Bird songs of variety mix with the rasping of insects. The dogs find out everything they need to know about the area within fifty seconds and retreat to the shade of the trailer. The old dog hoists himself to his feet every few minutes to make a slow circle of the vehicles. The beginning and ending of his prowl is his pink squeaky porcupine.
A white car turns into the parking lot, but it doesn’t park. It comes directly to the end of the lot, pulls into the loop and up to the trailer where I sit in the lawn chair and write in a notebook. The occupants stare at me like I’m blocking the ramp to Disneyland. I ignore them and they back away.
Just as I finish marveling at people who lock their brains in their suitcases, a motorcyclist does the same thing. The man glares at me then roars around the truck and trailer. Did I miss something? I survey the huge, empty lot. No. There is not one reason for anyone to drive out to where I’m parked. Oh no. A motor home turns in, traverses the vast rectangle of asphalt and pulls into the loop. Earlier, I stopped to take photos and used a National Park Service, bear-resistant garbage receptacle as a tripod. As I framed the Grand Teton a voice said, in a heavy New York accent, “Let me take your picture.” Over my shoulder I saw a slight, bald man in a pressed shirt and jeans. Behind him was a small silver car with Florida plates; a white mountain bike was attached to the back.
“Uh, no,” I said switching lenses on the camera.
“C’mon. You’re all dressed up like a cowgirl. Don’t you want your picture on top of that, uh, uh…,” he waved toward the fence.
“On the trash can?” I said.
“No, no. The fence.” He must have assumed that, like any tourist, I wanted a picture of myself the size of a pea in front of a mountain range composed of billions of cubic feet of rock. Maybe he hoped I’d reciprocate and take his picture. Why not just ask me? East Coasters are in more than a different time zone.
“Thanks. But I don’t want a picture of myself,” I said.
“Well, shame on me, shame on me,” he repeated with added, despairing hand gestures.
A Trumpeter swan rises from the Snake River as Dwight Yoakam sings, “I’ll leave you cryin’ in the smoke along the track.” I leave the Tetons with their tops blowin’ smoky clouds.
A cozy cafe in Dubois seems a likely place to wait out the rain. I’m seated before I realize that a woman who is having a late lunch with her three kids is oblivious to the fact that one of her children thinks he’s a parrot. The silverware at each table is kept in wax paper bags and I empty out my allotment so I can stir my coffee. I order a hot roast beef sandwich knowing that it will be terrible. Sure enough, the recycled slices of gray meat on my plate have made the long, hard ride to Chicago and back as brake shoes, and been used for carpet padding, too.