Clark W. Griswold
I don’t know what it’s like at your house, but at ours, there are very few duties that are mine alone. I clean out the gutters, I take care of the rain barrels, and I’m always the one who calls for pizza. Mowing the lawn used to be all mine, too, until I let the yard junglefy a few times, and now Teri and I share that one. (Sorry, babe.) I also plan all our trips. How this responsibility fell into my column is a mystery, since I tend to significantly overestimate our tolerance for time spent in the car, and I often fail to leave much room for little things like meals and the distractions that naturally arise during a road trip, some of which can leach hours from the schedule, albeit pleasantly.
As I explained in my first post, I also prefer to improvise lodging, so that when we’re twelve hours into a scheduled eight-hour ride but nowhere near our destination, I don’t have to pay for an empty hotel room hundreds of miles away when I realize too late that we cannot possibly make it that far. And to answer your question, yes, it’s surprisingly easy to find an affordable last-minute hotel room. Some people think of last minute as “Oh shit. It’s Thursday already and I need somewhere to stay on Saturday.” Not me. Last minute means 8:59 when Teri is going to kill me if I don’t have a room booked by nine. It’s incredibly helpful to have a phone with an internet browser and a signal, along with the ability to remember hotwire and kayak, in that priority (it helps that they’re in alphabetical order).
While I was planning our Yellowstone trip, I read the following in one of the many travel guides I perused: If you’re on a limited schedule, don’t make the mistake of trying to see too much. One of my travel resources even advised to pick a single area to explore for an entire week. I scoffed at the idea. I mean, we only had four days to spend in the park, and who knows when I’ll have the chance to go back? I would have loved to take my sweet time in order to thoroughly explore four-sevenths of the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, but what about Mammoth? Yellowstone Lake? West Thumb? Tower? And, Oh My God, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with its thundering Lower Falls, a scene so familiar from paintings and photographs that I could draw it from memory?
So, with an ambitious itinerary in hand, we pressed on, ignoring the advice. You see, although it’s a massive area, I still think of myself as younger than I am, with more energy, so I tend to assume such recommendations are intended for people with small kids or retired couples travelling the country in their RV, finally hitting the spots they agreed decades ago to revisit when they had the time. But I did not see as many of these groups as I had expected while planning the trip. Most of our fellow tourists seemed to be a lot like us—couples who decided to see the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone after the August crowds had all left and at the height of the autumn colors. Indeed, one of our travel resources pinpointed October 1st as the most brilliant time for the beautiful fall aspens. We arrived October 3rd.
Afternoon, October 4, 2010
I realized the afternoon of day two that the take-it-slowly suggestion was perhaps borne not so much out of geographic realism (Wikipedia tells me that Yellowstone National Park spans an area of 3,468 square miles.) but perhaps also out of limitations on emotional energy. That morning had been so fantastic, transcendental even, that it was mentally and spiritually exhausting. Then we made the mistake of heading directly north to Mammoth Hot Springs. If your emotional/mental tank is not full when you approach the next attraction in Yellowstone, you are probably cheating yourself. Had we visited Mammoth Hot Springs first thing that morning, it would have no doubt had the same spellbinding power as the Lower Geyser Basin at daybreak.
If you’ve never been there, Mammoth Hot Springs is a stark, hilly otherworld. Through its massive travertine base flows a hot spring that is constantly depositing calcium carbonate, forming shelves and terraces, which, in turn, hold pools of clear steaming water. Most of the area is strikingly white, except where streaks of bacteria stain the travertine brilliant orange. Or at least that’s its current state. Apparently, the entire landscape is prone to change from year to year. While we were there, approaching storm clouds darkened the cliffs and mountains in the distance, creating a dramatic contrast with the brilliant sunlit upper terrace. Twisted, lifeless tree trunks still stand as relics of more hospitable years, casting long gnarled shadows on the alabaster rock and sand.
I truly wish that we had explored the beautiful area with fresher eyes and fresher legs. The north part of Yellowstone, which holds Mammoth Hot Springs, was the first area of the park that Teri and I had visited together for the first time, as she had taken a family trip to Yellowstone with her parents years before, when access to Mammoth was cut off. That we did not explore Mammoth more thoroughly, without the emotional hangover resulting from that morning, is one of my biggest regrets of the trip.
Evening, October 4, 2010
Our next notable stop that day was at picturesque Tower Fall.
Afterward, we headed south toward the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and spent time at various vantage points marveling at Upper Falls and then Lower Falls. The beauty and power of the area is almost overwhelming. Artist Point is the perfect moniker for the view it affords. Spread out before you is a 180-degree panorama of amazement. Directly west is the Lower Falls, its roar muffled because of the great distance. Far below runs the Yellowstone River, no doubt cutting the canyon slowly deeper. It’s one of those rare places that feel too perfect to be real, and I found myself whispering in reverence when I could speak at all.
Photographically, it was not the perfect time to visit the area, with the setting sun directly behind the Lower Falls to the west. There was no doubt in my mind that we would return the following morning to see it in a different light.