West Bound & Down, Loaded Up and Truckin’

mauerbauertraurigkeit n. The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.

Between jobs we hated, a string of unfortunate and unforeseen expenses, and general adult responsibilities that have a way of kicking your ass, Chris and I had pretty much craved the summer’s end from its inception.  But when the end actually came and we were staring down the barrel of a month long road trip, we found ourselves in a state of disbelief.  In all honestly, neither of us were particularly excited about this trip.  The summer had been stressful and expensive on us, and we knew the road trip would be even more so.  Our South American voyage would have benefitted if we could give our wallets a rest by not going on this road trip.  But we had one slight problem that had been living the spare room of our basement for the last month: Mitchell.  He and I had concocted this trip months before Chris and I even started dating and he had flown all the way here for it.  I could hardly back out now, no matter how unprepared we were for this trip or what kind of tensions had arisen between us and Mitchell in the last week of his stay.  So there we were, on the morning of September 11, a day we dreaded for a reason different than the rest of America, all loaded down and ready to go.   They say death rides a pale horse; we were riding a pale 1999 Toyota Camry named Mortimer, but I’m sure the metaphor is the same.

Because it wouldn’t be a proper road trip post without a cliché quote from On the Road, Jack Kerouac, “The road must eventually lead to the whole world.”  We sure hoped so.  Even though I hadn’t really wanted this road trip, I was willing to make the best of it and I was still eager to see what wonders the road would bring us.

Before the trip could really get underway, I had a personal stop to make in Butte, Montana, my hometown, to see family.  The original plan was to stay one night and head straight down to Yellowstone the next afternoon, after looking at a rather grim weather forecast for the park that evening, we opted to stay for one more night with my grandma and head out early the next day.  I certainly had no intention of camping in the snow just yet.  Unfortunately, that meant for a couple slow days in a slow town.  While Butte was once the most lucrative copper mining town in the entire world, a booming city with a population greater than the whole state of Montana today, it’s not much more than a Podunk little ghost town today.  That said, I am completely and utterly in love with the city of Butte.  I love the boarded up brick buildings that line the steep uptown streets, the old metal mining derricks that dot the skyline, and I even love the giant Superfund Site of the Berkeley Pit that holds millions of gallons of toxic mine tailing runoff.  It’s a Butte thing, and anyone who isn’t from Butte doesn’t understand how strangely beholden we Butte rats are to the city.  

The Mt. Con Mine bearing the Butte Montana slogan.

However, even I must admit that when it comes to finding things to do, Butte doesn’t make it easy.  We wandered the streets of uptown, had lunches and dinner with my family, checked out a bit of hiking on the portion of the Continental divide trail that runs through Pipestone Pass just outside the city, and introduced Chris and Mitchell to their first official American football Sunday.  By the time Tuesday morning rolled around, we eager to get moving. 

And by moving, I of course mean migrating to an even smaller confined space where we could sit cramped together for hours until we reached the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, just outside Gardiner, Montana.  Even Yellowstone wasn’t much of a reprieve to the boredom of sitting since Yellowstone is more of a driving park than anything.  Our first stop at the Boiling River just inside the north gates was probably the most walking we got in all day, with a whole half mile walk along a flat dirt trail to where a spring of scalding hot water pours into the cold Gardiner River, creating little pockets of warm water suitable for soaking (if you’re willing to endure the snappy winter air on wet skin when you get out that is).  All in all, we weren’t willing to endure that, especially after seeing the snow that capped the hills surrounding us.  Mitchell was the only one of us to even put his feet in while Chris and I settled for standing on soft, yellowish rocks (gee imagine that) over the boiling water and warming ourselves in the clouds of steam.

From there, it was back to the car and deeper into the park.  We passed the visitor center village, where a bunch of elk were laying among the cottages with zero regard to the hundreds of people passing them, and drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs for a couple quick stops.  Beyond that, we faced the first of several detours Yellowstone would wind up throwing our way.  The initial plan had been to cut straight down from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Norris Geyser Basin and the main road that cuts west to east across the park.  That road, however, was closed, forcing us on a fifty-mile detour through the saddle between Mt. Cook and Mt. Washburn.  The only added sights that this detour added was fresh snow in the pass (much more exciting for Mitchell than it was for either Chris or myself) and Tower Falls, which ended up being a rather disappointing little waterfall of which you can only get a faraway glimpse.

Two hours behind schedule, we made it to the Norris Geyser Basin, which, like most sights in Yellowstone, is not much more than short trek on a boardwalk that loops through a field of various small geysers.  Granted, some of the deep cracks of boiling turquoise water that seem to fall endlessly through the earth’s crust are neat to see, but I fail to see the hullabaloo about Yellowstone.  To me, it seemed like an overcrowded, over trafficked tourist trap that attracted busloads of Asian tourists, not genuine hikers and nature lovers.  Part of me felt bad for being so unimpressed so early on in the trip, and another part of me felt bad for dissing our nation’s first national park only a week after it’s 100th anniversary.  The other part of me just wanted to get somewhere remote and warm.

After Norris, we needed to decide what to do.  Norris is located at the junction between roads that lead out of the west and south entrance of the park.  Ideally, we would have liked to continue on out the south entrance and right into Grand Teton National Park, but since the south entrance had just recently been closed due to forest fires, we would have to exit out through West Yellowstone, temporarily dipping back into Montana to do so.  It also meant that anything we wanted to see down the south road would be done at the cost of having to double it back.  It was already well into the afternoon and since we were doing this trip with the intention of using unplanned roadside camps, we had no idea where we would be staying the night.  I didn’t want to be dealing with all that in the dark.

One thing we really wanted to see down the south road, however, was the Grand Prismatic Spring, so we decided to at least drive down to that and see where we were time wise.   Like most things had been. Grand Prismatic was disappointing.  It derives its name from the brilliant turquoise and blood orange colors of the massive pool, but since we had elected to come to Yellowstone on the first truly cold weekend of the year, the steam from the hot water was so great that you couldn’t see more than three feet ahead.  The orange rims were visible enough, along with the multitude of hats that were oddly scattered across the bacterial mat, but the deep turquoise pit was all but hidden.

At that point, I really just wanted to move through the park.  It was getting later and we would already be pushing dark.  I made the executive decision to skip Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s billboard site.  Besides, I had seen it once before on a winter snowmobiling trip through the park and there’s really not much impressive to the shot of steam other than its punctuality.  Mitchell was less than pleased with my decision, and I was already cranky from having driven all day.  By the time we finally parked the car beyond a little roadside gully outside Victor Idaho, tensions were running high and everything came to a boiling point, not unlike the geysers we had seen that day.  I don’t even remember what set me off, but before I knew it, I was giving Mitchell, Chris, and whoever else was in the nearby vicinity a piece of my mind and frustrations.  I was sick of the lack of gratitude, the feeling that I was just being taken advantage of on this trip, and the judgment despite my generosity in offering up my car. As Chris and I pitched our tent in the rain a good distance away from Mitchell, who I really didn’t want to talk to that night, I dreaded the weeks to come.  We had been on the road one day and we already couldn’t get along.  It was going to be a long month.