A Syncopated Journey — Offbeat at Yellowstone

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My eyes furtive­ly glance at the rearview mir­ror, check­ing for cops, as the fam­i­ly car edges close to forty-five miles per hour, cruis­ing west on South Dako­ta High­way 44. This par­tic­u­lar stretch of asphalt is post-apoc­a­lyp­tic emp­ty and flanked on both sides by green and yel­low mixed grass­es, as the road cuts through por­tions of Buf­fa­lo Gap Nation­al Grass­lands. My four­teen-year-old daugh­ter stretch­es her short legs to give the car some gas, as she accel­er­ates clos­er to the speed lim­it. Ear­ly morn­ing light floods through the win­dows, catch­ing the glint of her sub­tle smile. This fam­i­ly road trip seemed the appro­pri­ate time to bump her into the driver’s seat.

The legal dri­ving age in South Dako­ta is four­teen, so we are not exact­ly break­ing the spir­it of the law, though we lack the pre­req­ui­site forms and eye exams. I learned this from a vice guide I print­ed out from the dark base­ment below the reg­u­lar Inter­net. (There you can find prac­ti­cal­ly any­thing, crazy things, like assas­sins.) This par­tic­u­lar tome of knowl­edge pro­vides not just legal dri­ving ages, but also the legal ages for drink­ing, smok­ing, and oth­er activ­i­ties. It delves across the fifty-two states, inform­ing about what is legal—some things only bare­ly, by virtue of long for­got­ten laws and legal loop­holes. With each state in the union main­tain­ing its own code of law, it can be a chal­lenge know­ing which states allow the smok­ing of salvia or the fuck­ing of pets. In some places, you can kill an Indi­an if he cross­es in front of you. Not that I endorse any such activ­i­ties, but if you have the urge to get smoked up and screw your pooch while shoot­ing an Injun, it is best to do it with­in the realms of the law, like a good hon­est cit­i­zen. This is the real fear that keeps good Lib­er­tar­i­an men like Ron Paul and Gary John­son from being viable pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. What one state views as a felony, anoth­er sim­ply sees as a wild Tues­day night.

Our next major des­ti­na­tion is Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park, with a quick buck­et-list stop at Mt. Rush­more on the way. The famous sculp­ture is sup­pos­ed­ly some­thing that every God-lov­ing Amer­i­can must see before they kick it. It comes as no sur­prise that Mt. Rush­more start­ed out as a mere mon­ey­mak­ing scheme, con­ceived to lure tourists to South Dako­ta. That’s a lega­cy that is kept intact to this day. As we nav­i­gate the Black Hills region, we pass through the small moun­tain town of Key­stone, a ter­mi­nal place kept alive by feed­ing on the mil­lions of tourists that flock to see the famous sculp­ture. Like the cor­ner crack deal­er, the town seems to thrive on deal­ing its vile prod­uct to lobot­o­my-eyed tourists. Does the free world need this much salt­wa­ter taffy? We should declare a war on it! Make it so that the only way you can get fudge any­where near a nation­al park is in the ass of a drug mule.

Mt. Rush­more itself is high­way rob­bery of the worst kind. To get up close and per­son­al with the chis­eled pres­i­dents requires a hefty park­ing fee. Our annu­al nation­al park pass is con­fed­er­ate mon­ey here. Instead, we bypass the lot and hang out of the car win­dow, wild­ly click­ing the shut­ter, gangs­ta style, as we do a dri­ve-by shoot­ing of the four pres­i­dents. For those who don’t get suck­ered into the pay lot, you can pull over for free just around the cor­ner and gaze at the hawk­ish pro­file of George Wash­ing­ton. Much like your favorite Hol­ly­wood action star, he’s a lot small­er in per­son.

We take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to snap some pic­tures and enjoy a pic­nic lunch. My wife is a sand­wich artist, a true turkey club Picas­so, unlike those hacks at Sub­way. Even though it is a pain in the ass to keep food good when liv­ing out of your car, the incon­ve­nience is worth the atmos­phere. The lus­cious back­drop of pon­derosa pine trees and blocks of glit­ter­ing gran­ite is far prefer­able to the view of a squalid McDonald’s Play Place, ball pit lit­tered with dirty dia­pers and used nee­dles. Not to men­tion the smell: I inhale the sweet aro­ma of the pine, and it becomes clear what all of those air fresh­en­ers have been chem­i­cal­ly aping all of my life. I’d love to fig­ure out a way to cap­ture it in a brown paper bag and huff it for the rest of my trip.

Near­by, the Crazy Horse mon­u­ment is carved in Thun­der­head Moun­tain to hon­or the her­itage of the Lako­ta peo­ple, or per­haps sim­ply as anoth­er tourist mag­net. As I eat my sand­wich, I con­tem­plate a new mon­u­ment that would cap­ture the true spir­it of Amer­i­ca. I just need to find a suit­able moun­tain to deface with the sculpt­ed vis­ages of Rock­e­feller, Ford, Carnegie, and Gates. We’ll have “God Bless Amer­i­ca” play­ing out of loud speak­ers, fudge mak­ing, and five t-shirts for ten dol­lars for every man, woman, and child. I tear up, just think­ing about it.

 * * * * *

We leave Mt. Rush­more behind, vow­ing nev­er to return, and con­tin­ue north­west toward Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park. Enter­ing Wyoming, the land­scape changes again to sage green hills with a back­drop of dark green moun­tains. What can I say? This coun­try is big and emp­ty and beau­ti­ful.

As we head up Inter­state 90, I begin to see signs urg­ing us to exit west toward Yel­low­stone. How­ev­er, my wife insists we con­tin­ue on toward Red Lodge, sit­u­at­ed just north of the nation­al park, across the Mon­tana bor­der. We are lured by the promise of an ascent up Beartooth Pass, one of the country’s most scenic dri­ves. Judg­ing by our road atlas, we can con­tin­ue north on I-90 until it wraps back west. How­ev­er, our GPS unit seems to know a short cut through Bighorn Nation­al For­est. We put our faith in tech­nol­o­gy, tak­ing the sug­gest­ed exit. If noth­ing else, a dri­ve through a nation­al for­est should offer bet­ter views than the Inter­state.

The diver­sion begins in an out­stand­ing man­ner, as we nav­i­gate the nar­row switch­backs climb­ing into high­er ele­va­tions. To our right, some fleet-foot­ed prong­horn deer scam­per up the rocky side of the road. We con­tin­ue on through gates that close off these per­ilous routes dur­ing the win­ter. The need for the gates soon becomes clear, as the out­side air turns ice cold, and snow dots the land­scape, even now, in sum­mer. Things become even more dread­ful in places where the weath­er-bat­tered roads break down. With a ral­ly car, we might have been able to make good time, but we have to move slow­ly, so as not to careen off-road, down into deep, ragged inclines. Our GPS con­tin­u­al­ly recal­cu­lates our arrival time, push­ing it lat­er and lat­er into the night as our fuel gauge creeps toward emp­ty, with­out a ser­vice sta­tion in sight. Despite our effort, Red Lodge appears as a still dis­tant dot on the GPS dis­play as we cross over the Mon­tana state line. Sleep fogs over my eyes.

Turn left,” demands the GPS. I whip the car around, and imme­di­ate­ly mash the breaks. “Road closed,” warns a con­struc­tion bar­ri­er. Look­ing past my head­light beams, I see the rea­son: where my GPS insists there is a road, there is noth­ing more than a rough­ly road-shaped dirt stretch, loose­ly strewn with grav­el, extend­ing off into pitch black night.

Maybe we should turn back,” sug­gests my wife, “see if there is a hotel or some­thing some­where else.”

How­ev­er, I’ve come too far, and I’m too tired to admit defeat. I fly my civ­il dis­obe­di­ence flag and dri­ve around the bar­ri­er. I flip on the high beams and hope that the road doesn’t ter­mi­nate in a cliff so our trip gets cut short in some kind of Thel­ma and Louise trib­ute. I push the car fur­ther down the road, kick­ing up dust and grav­el. I don’t have to fear for police in such a des­o­late place; my only con­cern is the road and the fuel. The nee­dle of the gas tank gauge is now buried on emp­ty. We hadn’t planned on camp­ing out; hope­ful­ly the road lasts. If not, at least we have turkey sand­wich­es and the last of that ter­ri­ble Bud Light. The Nis­san bounces up and down as we stum­ble over pot­holes, fish­tail­ing a bit around the curves. My wife grips at the han­dle, curs­ing me; my daugh­ter ignores the sit­u­a­tion com­plete­ly, zoned out in her iPod playlist. After a tense fif­teen min­utes, the rum­ble sub­sides as the car tires clip back over onto pave­ment. Held breaths are force­ful­ly expelled. My dar­ing is reward­ed, because just a short time lat­er, we roll into the charm­ing moun­tain town of Red Lodge, Mon­tana.

Dur­ing win­ter months, Red Lodge is a bril­liant stay for those tak­ing advan­tage of near­by ski­ing slopes. The town strikes the trav­el­er as laid-back and per­haps a bit bohemi­an. The diminu­tive main street is filled with a chain of small cafes and bars, a lega­cy kept from the min­ing boom past, when the tiny town had twen­ty saloons. I lament that, at this late hour, I’m unable to stop and close one of their mod­ern descen­dants down. Lodg­ing is more of an urgent need than a gin and ton­ic.

We hope to stay at the Yodel­er Motel, a kitschy chalet that has been in the area for over a hun­dred years and which is lov­ing­ly main­tained. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the out­side neon decries, “No Vacan­cy,” leav­ing us look­ing for oth­er arrange­ments. We find lodg­ing next door at the less­er Lupine Inn. There is a bed, but unfor­tu­nate­ly the Inter­net con­nec­tion is spot­ty, leav­ing me to boost a sig­nal from neigh­bor­ing hotels. In our room, we spend the next hour peri­od­i­cal­ly check­ing to see if Beartooth Road will even be open to allow pas­sage into Yel­low­stone. Even in the mid­dle of June, it is iffy whether the deep snow peaks will be cleared. Final­ly, word comes from the stolen Inter­net: “PASS OPEN.”

 * * * * *

We are up ear­ly the next morn­ing, ready to enter into one of the most emo­tion­al­ly thrilling expe­ri­ences of my life­time. We head south, where the road out of Red Lodge becomes framed by sto­ic white­capped moun­tains. As we ascend the switch­backs, we put the majes­tic sound­track to Disney’s Soarin’ on infi­nite repeat. My heart swells, and I bawl like a baby. There is a rea­son that Beartooth Road is con­sid­ered one of the most scenic dri­ves in Amer­i­ca. At each bend and turn in the wind­ing road, you are treat­ed to a new spec­ta­cle. It begins with a view of the snow-cov­ered grey moun­tains in the dis­tance, jut­ting out from patch­es of dark green trees. We take a moment at a pullover lot to enjoy the post­card view. The ear­ly morn­ing air is crisp and sweet with pine, and chip­munks play­ful­ly scur­ry about. From there we con­tin­ue on up the pass. The air chills notice­ably. Heaps of fresh snow are packed on the side of the road, and some skiers dart down the steep slopes, dis­ap­pear­ing out of view. At the next turn, we are treat­ed to an expanse of icy glacial lakes as we near the peak, just shy of 11,000 feet ele­va­tion.

Our descent into Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park brings us past bril­liant, sparkling pools of water reflect­ing the pic­turesque moun­tains along­side. Our entrance into Yel­low­stone is spec­tac­u­lar: wide open fields of gen­tle green hemmed in by tree-lines and cut through with glit­ter­ing creeks cours­ing over smooth stones. The roads are lined with wildlife pho­tog­ra­phers hoist­ing gigan­tic tele­pho­to lens­es. I stop and pull out our diminu­tive Canon DSLR to take pic­tures of scam­per­ing ground­hogs; I haven’t felt this inad­e­quate since fresh­man year gym class. Yel­low­stone is a nature photographer’s wet dream. You can’t turn around with­out look­ing at a scene straight out of a nature paint­ing. In the park we are enter­tained with views of graz­ing bison, soar­ing hawks, mule deer, bull moose, brown bears, and hoards of Chi­nese tourists. At each stop, busses dis­gorge the tourists, and they trail after guides, wav­ing lit­tle flags. We fol­low them along the board­walk encir­cling the Grand Pris­mat­ic Spring, one of the park’s most famous geo­log­i­cal fea­tures.

There, the ground belch­es out thick plumes of steam, through which tourists attempt to ward off the grip­ping stench of sul­phur by tuck­ing their faces deep into stretched sou­venir t-shirts. Only their eyes are exposed, gaz­ing in admi­ra­tion at the rain­bow palette of intense geot­her­mal fea­tures. There are boil­ing pools of the most bril­liant blue giv­ing way to greens meet­ing edges of fire-like swirls of yel­lows, reds, and oranges. There are burp­ing pud­dles of mud, mak­ing obnox­ious nois­es, which elic­it gapes and laugh­ter from amused onlook­ers. And there are Chinese—Chinese every­where. My wife and daugh­ter tor­ment me by pick­ing out my Asian dop­pel­gänger, a dumpy fel­low with string­ing hair and thick Coke-bot­tle glass­es.

There is so much to see, but with the clock swing­ing past noon, we decide to go and find some­thing to nosh on. Back in the car, we cruise past the thick forests, lit­tered with thou­sands of fall­en trees like white bones. These dead trees are a com­mon sight around Yel­low­stone, knocked over by age, dis­ease, fire, and wind. We are enjoy­ing our dri­ve, when sud­den­ly, out of nowhere, traf­fic grinds to a com­plete and total halt. Even­tu­al­ly we see the cause: an entire herd of bison has decid­ed to use one lane of the two-lane road as a walk­ing trail.

My stom­ach growls angri­ly. “Run over the moth­er fuck­ers!” I road rage to the cars in front of me. They won’t. Accord­ing to the vice guide, wan­ton killing of ani­mals in a nation­al park is a def­i­nite no-no. We have to mol­ly­cod­dle the bas­tards. Some­times cars are able to pass them, but most edge back, giv­ing the lum­ber­ing behe­moths the right-of-way. The pass­ing lane is blocked by cars going the oppo­site direc­tion, slow­ing to take pho­tographs or to point and laugh at the long line of us. I learn that the aver­age land speed of a bison on an asphalt road is between three and four miles per hour. After about an hour of painstak­ing­ly slow trav­el, the bison final­ly decide to get off the road.

We waste no time, exceed­ing the speed lim­it toward the Roo­sevelt Lodge restau­rant. When the wait­ress asks me what I would like to eat, I don’t have to debate.

One bison burg­er, please.”

How would you like that, sir?”

Revenge is a dish best served cold,” I snip.

After get­ting reen­er­gized with lunch and calm­ing down, we dri­ve over to look at the Old Faith­ful geyser, anoth­er one of those life­time must-do’s. In the packed park­ing lot, I pass a pick­up truck, where ravens the size of small dogs are rip­ping the soft, fleshy sides of a cool­er to get at the meaty corn chips inside. I make the mis­take of walk­ing too close, and the near­est raven gives me a beady, black stink-eye straight out of a Poe night­mare. “You can have the fuckin’ Fritos,” I say, mak­ing a wider berth.

In the Old Faith­ful view­ing area, we find bench­es and await the explo­sion of the well-known geyser. As I sit, I have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on the last few days spent tour­ing such scenic places. Many of the crowd will leave with a renewed com­mit­ment to save the plan­et. But I’m not so sure the plan­et needs sav­ing. This amaz­ing place was carved by fire and ice, forces so much big­ger than our­selves. Hell, just under­foot is a super vol­cano that packs the poten­tial punch of a thou­sand Hiroshi­ma bombs. When it goes, it is gonna take a chunk of Amer­i­ca with it. It strikes me as ego­tis­ti­cal to believe that we can kill or save the earth. The plan­et has sur­vived things much worse than us, and beau­ti­ful places like this will prob­a­bly exist long after we are killed off.

I’m lurched from my thoughts when the geyser begins to churn and the audi­ence perks up. “Ooooh,” go the Amer­i­cans. “Lalalala,” go the Chi­nese. The crowd erupts when Moth­er Nature blows her vol­canic load one hun­dred and thir­ty-two feet into the air, to the delight of the cheer­ing crowds. As the crowds dis­si­pate, I duck into a near­by gift shop and look for taffy.

 

¶ Despatched on Sunday, November 11th, 2012 at 9:26 pm and sorted in Essays. ¶ { ReTweet }

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