Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Great Family Vacation, Part 3

Day Five: Last night, I ventured out to find a cup of hot tea for Kara, and since it was too late for the Bear Deli and too late for the little Espresso cart on the second floor, I found myself in the Bear Den, the rustic bar just off the lobby, to inquire about a cup of hot tea. While I was waiting for said tea to steep, I overheard a snippet of conversation between one of the girls behind the bar and another who also works here but popped in for a libation before doing what the people that work here do when they’re not hustling tables or cleaning the rooms. The woman behind the bar asked what the other had done the night before and she replied, “We just hung out. There was a poker game in Mikes room, but other than that, nothing much.”

It suddenly seemed so exciting, a brief glimpse into the background world of Yellowstone’s numerous employees. Earlier, when I was paying for Natalie’s ViewMaster (yes, we finally got one for her…and a puzzle for Matthew), I asked the guy behind the register where they stay while they’re working, and he explained that they have dorms for the employees and how he lucked out with a good one with a private bath and free Internet.

Walking back to the room with Kara’s tea and a glass of Port for me (Fonseca, a favorite… of course, the 27-year-old tawny), I got to thinking about how much of an exciting adventure it would have been to do something like this when I was that age. Like DisneyWorld, most all of the workers here in the Park are college aged (and a bunch of white kids with various European accents), no doubt taking off a semester to spend it making some money in Yellowstone, and as much as I hate harboring regrets, it would have been fun to study abroad or work at a National Park for a quarter or two. What would I have missed? Nothing, I’m sure. I would have still graduated in five years, but I would have had more to show of it.

Today was pretty much jam-packed with a lot of Yellowstone adventure. We started the day early, as the kids rose with the break of dawn, and although the skies were overcast with a gray pall, it was considerably warmer. The icicles that had held fast to the log-beams outside our window were beginning to falter, drip by drip, and I noticed a lot of people watching the morning’s Old Faithful show hatless and without gloves. Even though we got up early, we started rather late, not making it outside until just before 10am. We cycled through several plans for the day, but because I had a meeting to attend (a teleconference), I needed to be in the room at 11:30, so we decided to stay local in the morning and then venture out in the afternoon.

We decided to walk around some of the local geysers we didn’t get to see yesterday, and it was interesting to see the different pools. The venerable old lone Buffalo I could see from my window the other day was still grazing on the grass above some of the colorful pools, and down one of the paths, was a full-racked Elk lounging in the grass, watching the people go by. Several of the geysers and springs were in full splendor as we walked by, but because I had to run on ahead to make it back on time for my meeting, I missed The Castle Geyser’s eruption, which became Natalie’s favorite. Mine was the Grotto Geyser.

After my meeting and a quick bite to eat (a sandwich from the deli… it seems as though I can’t take out my wallet without spending $10; it could be stick of gum and a post card and they’d say “ten dollars please”) we hoped into the truck to see what we could find up north.

Jason and Raquel (and Baby Alex) had finally made it in last night (after having to go back to Jackson Hole and up to the West Entrance), and since they were tired of driving, they decided to walk around the Inn and the various trails in the area.

We left the room without much of a plan. I wanted to see some mud pots and Kara wanted to see a moose, so we aimed the truck toward Madison, the next major “town” above Old Faithful, about 16 miles away. Along the route were various turnouts and side roads to stop at. We took the Firehole Lake Drive detour which led us around a quiet one-lane road only shared by a couple of other cars. We stopped at the first “attraction,” a rather placid geyser, sleepily bubbling, and surrounding it were a few dozen buffalo, now becoming quite a common site on our tours. Only a couple of them bothered to look up at us as we walked by.

We stopped by Gibbons Falls, which was an impressive waterfall carving its way through a narrow canyon. There were a surprisingly large amount of people there, and I hate to imagine what June was like. We got a parking spot in front of the viewing platform, but it seemed as though everyone decided it was time to visit Gibbons Falls all at once.

Since it would be impractical to stop the truck at every geyser and pool we came to—what with taking the kids out and putting them back in—some of them we merely looked out the window, and every time I rolled down any of the windows in the truck, Matthew exclaimed, “Matthew’s turn,” and would fuss until I rolled down his window so he could look out.

The weather was beginning to warm up, and the temperature doubled from its low a couple of days ago to an almost steamy 44 degrees. Most times, I left my jacket in the car and just wore a sweatshirt over my two other layers. There was one time we had walked back from seeing one of the waterfalls, because I was carrying Natalie, that I found myself sweating.

After completing the Firehole Lake Drive loop, we came across Artist’s Paintpots, where we stopped and got out for the one-third-mile walk to the geysers and springs. It was a beautiful trail, wide and gravely, flanked on either side by new pines, replacing those that burned in 1988 (when a good percentage of the Park caught fire). Natalie enjoyed hopping over the puddles, but about halfway to the geysers on that trail, Natalie looked at me and said that she had to go to the bathroom. Well, we couldn’t be farther from a bathroom at that spot, so it was either hold it or we’ll have to use a tree. She opted to hold it until we found a bathroom. “When I’m camping,” she explained, “Then I will use a tree but now I think I’ll wait until we get home.” It was a beautiful little alcove cut into the hillside, holding several bubbly springs, and we took a small trail that wrapped up the side of the mountain, through pine trees and clumps of snow, up some log steps and across a small hill to a crescent-shaped mud pot, three actually. They hissed gas like a broken oven, while several other places plopped out mud in gooey glops. Certainly my favorite. I took a few pictures of the others and a nice family shot with the valley below, and we made it back to the truck with only one incident of Matthew tripping face-first into the dirt…. certainly 14 less than I expected.

Once in Madison, we turned east toward Norris, deciding not to stop again until we reached the waterfalls, which turned out to be our final destination for the day. After another 26 miles, we were in Canyon Village, a mostly buttoned up hamlet of closed-for-the-season buildings and a very nice Visitor’s Center devoted to volcanoes and earthquakes. We grabbed a half-gallon of milk for just over three dollars (which beats paying $1.50 for a pint here in the Inn) and made our way to the waterfalls.

We stopped at the Lower Falls, at the upper observation level, and it was an great site to behold, a giant waterfall, perhaps two miles away, crashing down into the Yellowstone Grand Canyon below. The trail was covered by ice and snow and it was perceptively colder on this side of the loop than the other. We took some pictures and video, of course, and decided that everyone was tired of getting in and out of the car. The kid hadn’t had a nap yet, and since we had some time, we decided to swing around the whole loop, passed Yellowstone Lake and back to Old Faithful, about 50 miles.

Along the way, we had to stop three times for herds of buffalo making their way down the road or directly across it. The first instance, they were walking down the middle of the road, directly at us, and it wasn’t until they were right in front of the truck, that they decided to part ways and plod along on either side of the truck.

The rest of the way, we followed behind a brand new Ferrari, without license plates even, who decided that he was going to go only 45 miles per hour maximum and slow down to around 20 an the turns. Now granted, it was new and 45 is the speed limit in the park, and I don’t blame him for wanting to keep the shiny side up in case he were to come across some ice, but come on! That car was made for roads like this, and though it had dropped to about 36 degrees, we only saw one patch of ice the whole way.

When we got close to the Inn, we called Jason and Raquel to meet them at the Obsidian Dining Room in the Snow Lodge for dinner. I had the buffalo ribs, a salad and Antelope sausages (for an appetizer), which were really good. I can’t say that for the service, however.

They came back to our room for a drink, and then we went out to look at the stars. Tonight was the first night that the sky wasn’t shrouded in clouds, so the billons and billons of stars up there were clearly visible, something you certainly don’t get in the city. To add to it, right when we walked out there, Old Faithful made a spectacular appearance, bursting clouds of white steam against the black sky.

A few faint lights from the Inn were all there was to guide us back to our rooms and to bed. Finally, after a long day, it’s 10:30, and the room is quiet.

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