Saturday, August 30, 2008

Yonder to Yellowstone (and Grand Teton)

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."
--Norman Maclean, "A River Runs Through It."

"Two little feet to get me 'cross the mountain
two little feet to carry me away into the wood
two little feet, big mountain, and a
cloud comin' down cloud comin' down cloud comin' down"
--Greg Brown, "Two Little Feet"

Sorry about the long hiatus from blogging. With Long Day's Journey into Night over, I no longer have four hours of drunken crying to look forward to after work. In fact, as some of you know, I am about to embark on a different kind of hiatus -- from theater. That is perhaps the subject of another post. But with life about to get back to "normal," I'll theoretically have more time to blog, and hope to shoot off many more in the coming weeks and months.

I can't think of a better way to start than with a grand journey, the reason I started this blog in the first place. A week after the show ended, I flew to Jackson, Wyoming with my dad for our long-awaited jaunt through Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.

The airport at Grand Teton is the only one in the U.S. that stands in the middle of a national park. Thus, immediately upon touchdown, we were confronted by the primordial beauty of these majestic slopes rising high above us. The name of the park, incidentally, means "Big Tits," which I presume is what you get when you allow lonely French fur trappers to go around naming stuff.

For the time of year we went, mid-August, the parks were largely free of crowds. A large percentage of people we ran into were German, Italian or French tourists taking advantage of the weak dollar. In any case, the roads were relatively empty. As much as possible, my dad and I were determined to trek through the many wonderful hiking trails that veered off into the wilderness. Tragically (but good for us), these were even emptier. At times, there was nothing on the trails except for us, a few bison and the occasional osprey -- a fact that added to the adventure. My dad is on the cusp of 70, and I am further from my pre-fight weight and fitness* than I'd like to be (I'm workin on it!), but we did O.K.

*(Back when I fought George Foreman. Remember that? Neither do I.)

After a ferry-trip across Jenny Lake, we began our first trek, a moderate 2 mile hike to Inspiration Point and then to the spectacular, cascading Hidden Falls. It was shortly after we left the falls and I cooled my feet in the crystal clear water that my dad noted the general absence of wildlife. As if on cue -- I mean, less than a minute later -- a family of deer walked right in front of us, a doe and two fawns. It wasn't the first time that I'd be amazed at the fearlessness of the animals we encountered. You get reminded many times that this is their park, and the rules are different here. Of course, I've seen deer before, but never close enough to pet one (Don't worry. I didn't).

That was a precursor to what we saw later on the Signal Mountain Summit Road. As it approached sunset, we took this painfully slow -- speed limit 20 mph -- detour off the Teton Park Road. It was worth it. There are two stops, one facing west toward the mountains at their most majestic and another facing northeast toward Lake Emma Matilda.

About a minute after I took over driving for the day, a large black bear crossed the road ahead of us and disappeared quickly into the woods. On the way down, my dad abruptly told me to stop and pull back a few paces. There, within 100 feet of us, was another black bear. This one was much bigger, probably an adult male due to the collar around its neck that had been placed their by park personnel. Though we stayed for a good twenty minutes, the creature remained blissfully unaware(or was indifferent to) our presence as it tore into various shrubs and berries. You can see it all below, with "In A Big Country" appropriately playing on the radio and my dad doing his best Dr. Dolittle.

That night we dined at the Mural Room of Jackson Lodge, a more upscale inn that was home to several negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviets during the Cold War. The restaurant is named for it's twin "paintings": an Old West mural on one side and a huge picture window opening onto the Tetons on the other. I am a bit of an adventurous eater, so I decided to try some of the unusual game on the menu. I had elk (later in the trip, I'd have bison and wild boar -- all delicious).

The next day, we departed at the sacrum of dawn from Flagg Ranch, just north of the park, to see the sunrise at West Thumb Basin in central Yellowstone. Although it's not as feisty as the geysers in the Old Faithful area -- there are no regular eruptions -- the collection of alien colors reflecting mirror-like onto the lake made for a breathtaking morning. As the sun creeped over the mountains, bathing the landscape in hues of purple and orange, it was hard to miss the beautiful devastation left by the 1988 fire that wiped out long stretches of old wilderness. While that may sound like an oxymoron, there was an odd ethereal quality to the scene, particularly in this light, that made the trees look white. It made me think of what Lothlorien, the haven of the elves in the Lord of the Rings, might look like.

There is another reason for this seeming paradox. The fire burned 36 percent of the park, some 80,000 acres. At the time, there were dire predictions about the devastation of the park's ecosystem. But as were told many times during the trip, the fire was a natural, and even positive, development for the park, clearing out 200 year-old trees for new growth and opening up new habitats for much of the park's wildlife. The biggest losers were the moose, who lost most of the spruce trees that formed their habitat, trees that will take decades to regrow.

We first learned this from the wonderful guide who rowed us down the Snake River for a lazy 2 hour float trip. I don't know about you, but it's been my experience that river guides are always delightfully nuts. Whether its been whitewater in West Virginia or Maine, the people who lead these trips tend to be rugged adventurers and self-taught naturalists who travel the world in search of natural highs and thrills. They are living truly free lives, largely off the grid. Our guide did river trips in the summer and fall, and snowmobile treks in the winter. In his down time, he climbed peaks and traveled rivers around the world. Just days before our trip down the Snake, he had climbed up Grand Teton, the biggest of the big tits, with no instruments whatsoever. "Like the Indians," he said.

We lucked out with the weather: Every day we were there was sunny, in the 70s and 80s, and usually with a cool breeze. The current felt strong, as did the wind, as our guide pointed out several osprey and bald eagles perched along the way.

After the trip, we made our way north and east to the Antelope Flats Road, and then another dirt road that lead to Mormon Row. There lay a series of old wooden structures in various states of disrepair, which the Rough Guide calls without exaggeration "the most photographed barns on Earth." It was our first encounter -- one of many -- with a huge heard of bison in the park. There were easily a hundred there, grazing in the golden fields near the Moulton Barns, with the jagged Tetons rising in the distance.

It was hard not to fall in love with this iconic vision of the Old West, and I was not immune to its charms. The bison, who never fail to communicate in various ways that you are a visitor in their home, seemed bemused by yet another starry-eyed tourist, and obliged me by failing to charge as I snapped hundreds of photos of the herd in various poses.

By night, after a four mile hike into the forests and lily ponds on the Hermitage Point trail, we made our way to Geyser Country. A coyote followed the traffic for many miles.

More to come...

Note: For those of you still getting these on e-mail, you can see pictures and watch videos if you go to the Web site, For those of you who don't know, if you click on the photos, you can see them at full size.