I crossed into Wyoming from Idaho on a Saturday night, hoping to get to Jackson in time to get a taste of the “night life”. When I pulled into the main square that’s adorned with arches made out of antlers, I immediately spotted (or rather was struck by) what looked to be the ideal place: Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with its massive neon sign of a bronco riding cowboy. I paid the $5 cover and ordered some local drinks and a burger and found a bar stool (it actually was not a stool, but a saddle you sit on at the bar). There was a fun cover band playing country and rock classics. Some people were dancing. There were TV’s highlighting the games from College Football’s opening day. The place was packed. It was an interesting mix of folks: tourists, conference attenders and cowboys (at least people pretending to be cowboys. It was a lot of fun to observe, but not necessarily “fun” since I was there as a lone observer, not with one of the many clusters of partying friends. I did however have a conversation with a guy who was wearing a Highlands Brewery hat. I asked if he was from Asheville, and he said no, he was on a long road trip similar to me, and was glad to say Asheville was one of his favorite places he visited.
After spending the night on the banks of the Snake River, and getting breakfast in town, I entered Grand Teton NP. I had to leave El Guapo in the car while I ran a 6 mile circuit near Taggart and Bradley Lakes and another few miles near Jenny Lake. After a cold, but refreshing swim in Lake Jackson, the day was winding down and I felt ready to move on into Yellowstone. I loved the Tetons, and am considering a return trip to backpack deeper inside the range (the airport is actually inside the park boundary so it’d be fairly easy logistically). It’s also a great biking destination as there are flat greenways that run the length of Jackson and the NP.
While the Teton visit was fairly quick, I thought I might also pass through Yellowstone fairly quickly, but that was not the case. The two parks are like the Vatican: The Tetons is the Basilica: Outwardly grand and dominating the surround plain, but after taking it in after a few vantage points, you feel like you’ve seen it the structure and the views won’t change much as you walk around it. Yellowstone is more like the interior and the Vatican Museum, full of corridors of little and large wonders. You can’t take it in via a panorama. You have to drive, park, and walk thru innumerable stops and and information placards. Even the park service map did not list all the pullouts, stops and trails as they’re just too abundant to fit in. And that I arrived over Labor Day weekend additionally made it feel overcrowded with other gawkers.
I ended up spending two days in Yellowstone and even that felt rushed. I spent the first night and day at Old Faithful village and moved north toward Mammoth. I can’t even recall the names of all the geysers, colorful steaming, hissing pools and mud pits, waterfalls as I try to highlight them. I ended the day with a soak in Mammoth hot springs, and felt I still hadn’t seen much of the park. The next day I headed south and east, driving through fields of wildlife (Elk and Buffalo) and hitting the overlooks and trails around the Yellowstone Canyon and its two massive waterfalls. Even when I had decided I’d done as much as I could and was ready to move on, it still took a long drive (with more bonus stops) before I actually exited the park boundaries. Despite the fact that I was very impressed with Yellowstone, I felt touring fatigue setting in, and found myself saying “No more wonders!” and looked forward to getting on the road onto highways across the Great Plains where I did not feel as obligated to be stopping all the time.
I will also note that Yellowstone had a much more commercial vibe than the other national parks I’ve been too. It had several “villages” that were really like small towns – with lodging, restaurants, and stores. There were many touring buses, mostly made up of internationals, akin to what I’m used to seeing in my tour work in DC. It’s a testimony to how unique a place it is on the planet, and why it was our first National Park to be designated as such. While in my fantasy world, it would be nice to visit these wonders with no one else around, I’d say the Park Service has done a good job and I’m proud that they’ve made such accommodations and conveniences for visitors from all around the world, in a manner that protects the natural wonders. I even took advantage of those conveniences, enjoying some cooked meals at reasonable prices. I also appreciated that several of the restaurants stuck with “American” themes, set up as old diners serving traditional diner fare. Maybe those international tourists will enjoy their eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes and hashbrowns as much as I did.
When I finally left Yellowstone, I made a stop in Cody. It seemed like a nice town; similar to Jackson in that it’s a park Gateway town that plays up it’s cowboy, ”Buffalo Bill”, old west heritage for visiting tourists, but with all the real ranches I saw around it, there’s definitely an authentic frontier vibe too. I would have liked to have more time to visit the highly regarded Museum of the West. After eating a massive hamburger at the dog-friendly patio of the Silver Dollar Bar, I headed on and spent the night in a park in Powell.
I got up an hour before sunrise, and went into town to McDonald’s to get a frappe and get some work done on the free wi-fi. Part of the “vision” of my road trip was that I would avoid chain restaurants and eat local, and for the large part, I’ve fulfilled that vision, but there’s been times when it just made more sense to go with the more convenient option, particularly when I needed to get online and get some work done. Also, I feel like those of us in the “eat local” movement can be prone to snobbery and elitism. I noted this when I showed up at this McDonalds at 5:30am, and there were already two older local gentlemen there having coffee. In the course of the next hour, perhaps 20 more showed up, all seeming to know each other, clustering together around various tables talking about whatever was going on in the world. Like it or not, McDonald’s serves a need in that community. Sure, it’d be nice if it was Aunt LouAnn’s Diner downtown that was meeting that need, but its not, and we shouldn’t look down on these who meet that need at McDonald’s. In Asheville, we’re fortunate to have a number of cool local cafés that have that vision of community; although often times the people in them are tuned out to physical community and are tuned into their devices, much like I was in this McDonald’s off to the side on my computer. So hats of to the McDonald’s in Powell, WY and the gentlemen who show up at sunrise to start their day together.
After catching up on some work and emails, I continued east, thinking I was leaving the mountains, cold weather, and high elevation behind me, but the “scenic route” I’d chosen took me through Bighorn National Forest and up over 9,000 feet, and even gave me a little taste of one of the sights I’d been wanting to see: the aspen trees changing colors alongside evergreens in the mountains. I think it’ll be another few weeks before this happens throughout the Rockies, but this little sample was nice. I stopped in Sheridan, still in the morning to have my second breakfast of the day, at the Cowboy Café getting a great downhome breakfast, to complete my morning.
Pressing east, I mapped out a route that utilized some back roads, some of which were long gravel roads with frequent cattle guard crossings. I intentionally made a stop in the town of Recluse. A town with that name in our least populated US state certainly deserved a visit. The sign board at the all in one general store, which as closed, said: Population 7. Some locals eyed me as I got out of my car and took pictures. I imagined them saying, “Well, so much for getting away from it all. This town’s getting too crowded with all these out-of-towners; let’s go find some place even more reclusive from humanity.”
Further east, I stopped one of the world’s more unique natural wonders: Devil’s Tower, a huge protrusion of massive stone columns rising up to the sky like a giant tree stump. Most of my route through Wyoming was actually going the reverse route that my family did back in 1981, so this wasn’t my first time to see these parts of Wyoming. But I remember being particularly awed by Devil’s Tower as a kid, and it still struck me with awe as a grown-up. How does something like that happen naturally in the world? The info panels explained it was a mix of volcanic forces, erosion, and time, but the science of it did nothing to distill my sense of wonder at it again.
As the sun set, I crossed the border into South Dakota. Wyoming was a very fascinating place, and I’m glad I got to cross its expanse, with a backdrop of country music playing form the radio. From the northwest corner of the state with world famous National Parks and trendy frontier cities that tout the Old West image, I transitioned into rolling ranch lands where a scattered people made their living, not for show, but for a livelihood. I thought of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and our infatuation with cowboys and Indians and the American West. How so few of us now, and even in Cody’s day, ever lived that life, and yet that image hangs like a favorite shirt in our national closet.