Tuesday, Sept. 7th
Woke up and said more goodbyes to Jake, Sam and even the vicious parrot. While Em walked the dog, I managed to get him to echo my whistles. It's piercing and shrill, but it's better than his usual malevolent gurgle. Then Em drove us to pick up Judith, and from there she dropped us off at SeaTac, where we got our trusty steed, a silver-green Ford Taurus, which was our faithful companion for the next week.
East of Seattle, the landscape is still stereotypically Northwest-y: hills and mountains covered in green, green trees as far as the eye can see. But about 30 miles after going through Snoqualmie Pass (3,022 feet), the trees fade away and the rest of Washington looked rather familiar to Southern Californians: arid plains with scrubby little plants.
We stopped at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park for a time and saw many polished and unpolished bits of petrified wood, in addition to many huge hunks of it. Some of them were deceptively natural in coloration, but quite, quite stony. There are also some Native American petroglyphs there, though they've been relocated from their original site because of the damming of the Columbia River, which runs right by the park.
A gift shop just outside the park had many fine specimens and fossils, but I'm not much of a rock hound. The bowling ball sized spheres of petrified wood were very cool, though.
We pressed on to Spokane, where we stopped for lunch at the Steam Plant Grill, which is a fabulous restaurant inside the Spokane Steamworks, with its two 225 foot towers and much of the equipment still intact inside the building. The plant, built in 1916, was still in operation in 1986. They also brew beer on the premises and the porter I had was excellent, as was the somewhat sissified chicken burrito.
Not far out of Spokane, we passed into Idaho and the trees and hills returned. The road snakes its way up and around and among the hills. Coeur d'Alene and its eponymous lake is the widest spot in the road in the narrowest part of Idaho. The whole area is quite pretty to drive through… in summer, anyway.
We reached Lookout Pass (4,680 feet) which lies right on the border of Montana. The mountains gradually got lower as the road continued to snake about, passing through little mining towns. Soon the interstate is joined by the Clark Fork River (named after the Clark of Lewis & Clark) and we passed over it numerous times as we headed down toward Missoula, with the sun setting behind us, casting longer and longer shadows of the hills. On the way, I spotted a deer in a Kodak moment, just as it hopped over the fencing that borders the forest along the interstate. At 80 mph, you don't have much time to linger on the scenery, though.
In Missoula, we stayed at the ThunderBird Hotel, which was great, clean and super-affordable. We went for a long walk down Broadway to see the sights of Missoula, which seems to be a nice town, with the U of M (Go Griz!) and plenty of new looking shops and businesses. Now to bed, and tomorrow Yellowstone awaits.
Wednesday, Sept. 8th
We jetted out of Missoula and made a first stop in Butte, Montana, mainly to gas up, but also to see some of the old town architecture. Many fine buildings, built by the Copper Kings who ultimately pulled 13 billion pounds of copper out of the ground. Judith and I got in a little walking tour past some of the old mansions, including the Chateau built for the scion of a Copper King, now used as an art museum. The chateau was built on the plan of a French manor visited by the kid on his honeymoon. Apparently the amazing African mahogany stairwell was removed, sent to the World's Fair for display, and returned.
Also in Butte is the Berkeley Pit – a big hole in the ground. Billions of tons of ore came out of the pit, which is 1800 feet deep, though mostly full of water now that the pumps have been turned off.
Back on the road, we passed through Bozeman and soon bid farewell to I-90, which we had followed for 700 miles or so from Seattle. The 89 took us South toward Yellowstone; it's a much smaller road -- just two lanes -- but adequate for our needs. Just outside the North Entrance to Yellowstone is Gardiner, where we gassed up again and got lunch at Outlaw's Pizza.
At the North Entrance to the Park is a stone arch dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. We wended our way through the arch, and then on into Wymong and Mammoth Hot Springs, where we checked in at the Hotel, picked up a guidebook and set off to see the eponymous springs, which are quite near.
A boardwalk leads all around the huge white terraced deposits (to keep human feet off the potentially dangerous ground – they have a cute warning sign that shows a boy falling through the crust to his steamy doom, but I can't find a decent pic of it, so you'll have to settle for the Yellowstone buffalo warning. (Though you'd think that visitors to Yellowstone would be safe from buffalo, since buffalo are native to Africa and Asia. (Yes, I realize this is pedantic (and that this stack of parentheticals has left you, Dear Reader, afloat in the middle of a sentence.)))) and as it climbs higher, you can see some of the hot, sulphurous springs that provide the water. They have a lovely blue color in the depths, which is due to Rayleigh Scattering -- the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue -– off of nanoscale particles suspended in the water, rather than any actual blue colorant in the water.
After doing the lower springs, we headed east toward Tower Junction, seeing Undine Falls (very pretty), Wraith Falls (not as pretty), Floating Island Lake (where we saw a trumpeter swan (North America's largest waterfowl) and a field that had a big momma black bear and two cubs. The bears were far from the road, but still visible.
Then to Tower Falls which are impressive, but somewhat obscured by the trees. We also saw a deer in the parking lot, as well as one of the largest ravens we'd ever seen. We saw several more over the next few days - they grow them big out there. Then we sped back to Mammoth Hot Springs for a bite to eat and to rest up for much, much more of the park tomorrow.
Thursday, Sept. 9th
We started by going to the Upper Terraces of the Hot Springs. There's a delightfully twisty little road that you can drive (or hike) along in a loop that carries you to all the sights. We drove and stopped for pictures here and there of the springs and their weird formations. One giant hummocky dome was coated in a thin sheen of hot water streaming evenly over its sides. It was perhaps fifteen feet tall, and steamed pleasantly in the early morning chill.
From there, we headed on down the road past the Pillar of Hercules (a large stone at the edge of the roadway. Apparently, the entire stone has been moved and replaced several times. Once, because a steamship was being towed by horse over the pass to Lake Yellowstone!) toward Norris Geyser Basin.
Along the way, we saw Sheepeater Cliff (named after the local Indians, or at least what the pioneers called them. Now the place is inhabited by marmots.), a bison, and Lemonade Creek, which is an unusual green color. The stream is highly acidic and early park guides would add sugar to it and give it to the tourists as 'lemonade' – a practice now frowned upon by the National Park Service.
Continuing toward Norris, Frying Pan Springs delighted us with its sizzling and hissing right by the roadside. It first occurred to me here that Yellowstone is fun for all your senses. Pictures give you one aspect, but the sounds and smells of the area are also unique experiences. Norris Geyser Basin has over a hundred geysers, hot springs and mudpots and many are spectacular. This area has perhaps the best and most varied thermal features in Yellowstone. Put that in your blowhole, Old Faithful! A boardwalk runs out amongst them in the alien white landscape of the Porcelain Basin where nothing grows. Again, the sounds were an important part of the visit: the hiss of the steam vents, the fuming of fumaroles, the bubbling of springs – all accented by the rotten egg stench of hydrogen sulfide. The smell's hard to get used to, but a small price to pay for the scenery.
From Norris, we drove to Canyon Junction where the North Rim Drive gives excellent views of the 'Grand Canyon' of Yellowstone, as well as Yellowstone Falls. We took in the views at Inspiration Point and Lookout Point, but the best was the steep walk down to the brink of the Lower Falls, where you could watch the water plunge off into space and fall 300+ feet to the river below. The mist drifting in the canyon was sufficient that there were faint primary and secondary rainbows below us in the canyon. We saw the Upper Falls from a distance, but didn't have time to hike to its brink.
Back on the road toward Fishing Junction, we took the boardwalk hike along Mud Volcano Walk, with its many seething cauldrons of icky stinky muck. Some are very cavelike, and immediately suggest a sleeping dragon inside, with the rumbling and steam. Clearly, the dragon is taking his weekly bath, as there's more water around than one expects in a dragon's cave. Not only gaming geeks make this connection, since one of the features is Black Dragon Cauldron, which just suddenly erupted in the 1940's, blasting trees out of the ground as it arrived. Since then, the site of the mudpot has drifted a couple hundred feet, following some crack in the underlying rock.
Pressing on, Lake Yellowstone soon came into view. The water is an intense dark blue that seems quite unworldly. Following the coast of North America's largest alpine lake, we came into the West Thumb Geyser Basin, where we saw a number of other little geysers, springs and paintpots. These are perhaps the least stinky geothermal features in Yellowstone, in case that's important to you. By the Fishing Cone (which tourists once fished from and then possibly boiled their catch right on the line – until a few fell in and the practice was stopped circa 1950) there were some ducks enjoying the warmer water.
We then sped on to Old Faithful, with a brief interlude with a bison near the road and a mule deer on the edge of the road. We got checked in at the Old Faithful Inn, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. The place is almost a folly: the world’s biggest log cabin. The woodwork continues inside, with balconies, railings and a huge stone fireplace.
Then right out to see Old Faithful perform, which he did, quite spectacularly, shooting over a hundred feet in the air. In the area are many other geysers on more unpredictable schedules. Most just bubbled, but a couple were putting on great shows of their own while we were there. Pretty soon, all geysers look alike and we headed for dinner. On the way there, we had our closest encounters with bison. There were probably 20 of them, slowly making their way across the walkway. They make a deep grunting rumbling noise that's quite impressive. We gave them plenty of room, but there were lots of other tourists about who were more adventurous. While they hoped to get a good picture of bison, I hoped to get a good picture of bison getting artiodactylous on their asses.
Dinner was at the Dining Room at the Inn, which is naturally in the same style as the rest of it, despite some icky etched glass wall panels that I wish our waitress hadn't pointed out as being 'evil'. We had a splendid, extravagant meal. I had the culotte steak, while Becca had coq au vin and Judith had the spinach pie. We augmented our meal with an Atlas Peak Sangiovese, which was excellent, if a little too heavy on the spiciness (which is hard to do in my book). For afters, we shared a Yellowstone Caldera, which is both a tasty chocolate mousse dessert and a geological feature that could kill thousands of people at any moment. Cataclysmic eruptions of the caldera have occurred 2.0, 1.2 and 0.6 million years ago, so we're about due, give or take a hundred thousand years. Perhaps to deaden the dread of volcanic death, I splurged on a dram of El Tesoro de Don Filipe Reposado tequila, which was a nice end to the meal.
After dinner, we took a very short (Brrrrrr!) walk outside the hotel and just gaped at the stars in the sky and the Milky Way. Breathtakingly clear.