Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Great Family Vacation, Part Two

Day Three, October 6: In Jackson Hole, it rained all night, but waited until we were up and walking to the car before it started to hail… or sleet… or snow, whatever it was that Mother Nature was doing. I’m from Southern California; if there is frozen stuff coming from the sky, it’s snowing, but Kara was consistent in her assessment of which kind of frozen water was falling, sometimes it was sleet and sometimes it was snow while other times just hail. It was all snow to me.

We packed up the car and again headed North through the rain into Teton National Park. The rain was intermittent, so I constantly had to adjust the windshield wipers on the truck. Clouds obscured the Teton Mountains, one of the things I was looking forward to seeing, but by the time we made it up to the Moose Junction Visitor’s Center, some of the peaks had peaked out to pique our excitement (sorry). The Visitor’s Center was really nice, seemingly new, and it was our first experience with the cold climates of Wyoming in October, only around 45 degrees outside. There were nicely appointed displays showing the various experiences around the Park, from climbing to hiking to animal site-seeing… and that’s what we really wanted to find, some wild animals. They had some examples of the fur various animals have, which the kids enjoyed feeling. We visited the gift shop area and poked around at the stuffed animals. Natalie found a View-Master she wanted, but we didn’t get it because it as about $15. She got a postcard instead and a couple of Yellowstone-themed coloring books, which they are working on right now.

The Park Ranger at the information desk informed us that the road to Yellowstone, through the South Gate, was closed because of the snow, and to make it worse, the pass from West Thumb to Old Faithful was closed at Craig Pass (8261 feet), so we’d have to drive all the way around the lower circle to get to Old Faithful, about a 100 mile drive. Or worst case scenario, we’d have to return to Jackson Hole and come up through Idaho and in the West Entrance. That would add about three hours onto the trip for the day, something I wasn’t looking forward to, but then again, it would have added to the adventure this trip is turning out to be. On top of which, the Ranger said that snow tires were required on the South Entrance Road and suggested throughout other areas of the park. What are snow tires? Do I have snow tires? Can I get snow tires? Out in the parking lot, I looked at my tires, all-terrain mud tires, but would they hold up in snow?

Let the worrying begin, and let me preface my trepidation with the fact that I have never driven in the snow before. I’ve driven around snow and I’ve seen snow on the side of the road while driving, but never has it fallen around the car while I’ve been driving in it. But, let’s not put the cart before the horse, because we can’t even get through on the roads, much less have the pleasure of driving through the snow. Instead, we decided to explore the back roads of the Teton Park to see what it has to offer.

And boy did we.

From the Visitor’s Center, we took a right on Antelope Flats Road and drove toward Gros Ventre (pronounced grow vant… I don’t know why either) and Kelly Camp, making another right turn back toward the 89 and the Visitor Center, so far about 15 miles, with no animals to be seen. A while later, we spotted a herd of around 100 buffalo lounging around by the side of the road, so we stopped and took some pictures at the lazy beasts, chewing cud and perhaps contemplating their existence and the coming winter (where one-fourth of them won’t see Spring). A ways down the road, we saw a few buffalo much closer to the road, so we turned down a seemingly innocent looking road called Mormon Row to catch up with them to get a closer look. Mormon Row was named for a Mormon settlement from the 1860s and some of the houses are still there. Also what was there was mud, lots of mud; the whole road was basically alternating between mud and giant puddles. By the time I was in the middle of it, it was too late; plus, there was no turning around. My truck sank down into it and as I drove out if it, the mud sprayed, splattered and drenched both sides of my entire truck. The truck in front of me and the minivan in front of it, were perfectly fine, but thanks to my big tires that stick out from the wheel wells, mud splattered all over the windows, sides, door handles and bed cover. There was nothing to do but to continue through it, and I figured if a minivan can make it, so can I. The difference is that they came out the other side completely clean. Us? Out of every window, it looked as though there hundreds of little brown buffalo on the distant horizon. Matthew kept looking at his window, saying “poop!” Other than that, we couldn’t see a thing (and I almost pulled out in front of another car because of it), and seeing the sites was the whole point of the trip.

I had to do something, but what? If only I had stolen the hotel towels in Jackson Hole, like I planned to do, I could wipe the windows down and continue. Instead, our only other option was to return to Jackson Hole, find a car wash and clean off the truck. When we stopped at the gas station at the edge of town, the rustic looking girl behind the counter, glanced at the truck and remarked, “Looks like someone had some fun.” There was a self-serve car wash back on Broadway, just on the outskirts of town (across from the Taco Bell).

We headed that way with a dirty truck, and I’m sure we added some worry to those driving up through the Teton Park, passing this mud covered truck, wondering what kind of weather was in store for them, especially if the cars are coming back looking like that poor fellow!

Then it really began to hail, and you wouldn’t think that during a hailstorm there wouldn’t be anyone interested in washing their truck, but lo and behold, we were fifth in line for the self-serve pressure washer. Of those five cars, mine was hands down the worse, but there was only one other that looked as though it needed any kind of washing. It took about 45 minutes to wait for our turn, but finally I was able to clean off the truck with a pressure washer and a scrub brush. Note: squeeze down on the little handle so the water comes out faster—a fact I didn’t discover until the second round of quarters. Total cost of mud excursion down Mormon Row: $3.00.

We parked in front of the antler arches around Jackson Hole’s park and called mom and dad so they could look at us on Jackson Hole’s webcam. It was pouring rain, so we didn’t get out, and the second before I was going to take a picture of the front of the famous Million Dollar Bar, a big truck pulls up in front of it. Just my luck. Oh well.

Just outside of town was another Visitor’s Center, so we stopped to check the condition of the roads again and to look around at the various animal displays they had to offer (a really nice realistic herd of Elk was the centerpiece). The South Gate was open again and so was the road to West Thumb, but the road to Old Faithful was still closed. It looked as though we were destined to drive around. Again, the guy at the counter recommended snow tires, and by the time we reached the entrance gate to Teton National Park (the gate where you have to pay the $25 to get in), the Ranger there summed up the conditions of the road as “not good.”

My confidence level was fast declining, and instead of further adventurous journeys around the Teton Park, like we had planned, we felt it best to get moving up into Yellowstone, just in case it takes a while. No sense in driving on snow-covered roads in the dark. And, by this time, I’m thinking this is going to end up akin to a trip with the Donner Party, and that the snow is going to be tire deep and we’re going to get buried in some kind of snow drift, not discovered until the Spring thaw. Or I’ll be out in front of the truck pulling it with a rope through the snow, like Humphrey Bogart in the swamps in “The African Queen.” I was just glad that I brought a shovel.

With both hands sweaty on the wheel and the truck creeping along at 45 miles per hour, we reached the South Gate Entrance to Yellowstone. The whole time I’m thinking that they’re not going to let us through and that we’re destined to make the big loop around to the lower-elevation West Entrance.

The ground turned from green and brown to white, as the land around the road slowly turned white with snow. It looked like a Christmas card, like all of the pine trees were dusted with a white powder, really beautiful. I began to picture the road ahead, and since it was described by a Park Ranger, an official representative of the National Park system, as “not good,” I figured we were bound for an adventurous drive….if they would even let us through the gate.

We pull up to the gate behind a Toyota Prius, and there’s just no way they’re going to let that guy through. It’s a Prius with 13-inch wheels and skinny tires. Maybe they’re snow tires; after all, he was from Colorado, so he might know about snow tires, but I couldn’t get over the fact that it was a Prius. I’m driving an F-150 with big tires on it and I was worried that I wouldn’t make it through.

The Prius pulled away and we followed. The Ranger at the gate informed us that Craig’s Pass was finally open, which would cut down significantly our trip to Old Faithful. That was some good news. The temperature started to fall, from a toasty 45 degrees down to the high 20s (27 was the lowest I noticed on my gauge). We stopped a couple of times along the way to take some pictures, though nobody but me got out of the car, and we passed over the Continental Divide twice before reaching Old Faithful. The scenery on the drive was beautiful.

There was no problems at all, and it seemed as though I was worried for nothing. The truck didn’t so much as spin a tire. Sure, the ground was covered in snow, but the road was clean and clear, a little wet, but hardly “not good.” I pictured “The Great Blizzard of 74.” The next thing we knew, we were turning down the road to the Old Faithful Inn, passing buffalo along the side of the road.

After nearly 1000 miles, we had finally made it. Outside, it was 28 degrees.

We checked in, went up to the room and I made four trips to the truck with all of our stuff, as if we were staying a couple of months, much less four days. The Inn was sort of how I remembered, but smaller. I remembered the fire place being in the middle of the lobby instead of off to the side, and everything has an updated feel to it from what I remembered. However, the last time I was here was nearly 20 years ago, so I imagine some things are bound to change.

We are staying in Room 3024, on the third floor of the East Wing, part of the Inn that was built in 1913, so the floors squeak with the quaintness of an old lodge and there is a delightful musty smell in the air of old heated-water radiators, gas lamps and thick coats of cream-colored paint on the walls. The doors stick, the glass in the windows have that melted look and the mattress springs are spongy. According to Natalie, there are 11 tiles in the bathroom that have animals painted on them, buffalo, bear, elk, etc., and the shower is a rather hit-or-miss operation. If you stand there long enough, you’re going to get scalded, as the temperature fluctuated from the temperature you set it to and as hot as it can possibly go. After a while, you can feel it coming, so you know when to get out of the way.

Outside our window, directly outside our window, perfectly situated between two stands of trees, is the Old Faithful geyser, which erupted just after we arrived. We can watch it any time we want, like having balcony seats at the big show. Beyond it are the local hills, across the way is the closed-for-the-season Old Faithful Lodge and between them is the circular walkway that the hoards stand on to watch the geyser blow. A buffalo is grazing off in the distance, a brown lump of fur in the white snow. We ate dinner in the main dining hall in the Inn, where I had roast buffalo (sorry old fellow), Kara had chicken and the kids had the standard macaroni and cheese. With two glasses of wine for Kara and I and the tip, it tipped the scales at $75. Yikes. After that, we ventured out into the cold and played in the snow for a while until Old Faithful spouted off again. Natalie made snow angles (she said she learned how to do it from TV…good for her), and it didn’t take the kids long to discover that chucking snowballs at each other (and us) is hilarious fun.

We discovered that darkness crashes down onto everything in the mountains, and when the sun goes down, especially since the sun didn’t actually come out from behind the clouds for most of the day, it gets completely dark. Hand-in-front-of-the-face dark, and they don’t even light Old Faithful at night like I expected they would.
We were asleep by 10pm, and while we slept, Mother Nature dumped about three inches of snow onto everything.

Day Four: We had breakfast in our room and discovered that the roads again were closed, and we discovered it the hard way, by driving out on them to a sign that said “Local Traffic Only.” The truck took a while to get warmed up, which gave us time to dust off the snow on the windows and the doors, and the lock to the bed cover seemed to be frozen stuck.

Instead we decided to walk around the local geysers and springs; the boardwalks were covered in ice and everything had a white blanket on it. It was bitingly cold, and just on the other side of Old Faithful, a group of elk were peacefully grazing, about 10 yards off of the path. We circled around the boardwalks and the various springs, watched as Sawmill geyser and Tardy geyser exploded right in front of us. I got it on video. Steam blew all around us, and I took some temperature measurements with my laser thermometer (they’re around 180 degrees if you’re curious); meanwhile, Matthew fell asleep in the stroller, so we bundled up the blanket around him. Natalie didn’t want to go near the geysers, but when she finally warmed up to them, she held her breath so she wouldn’t have to smell the sulfur. Twenty or so yards away, along the boardwalk a buffalo stood eating grass around the warm springs, and there were a dozen or more standing near the path next to the parking lot of the Inn, some on one side of the path and some on the other. We had to walk between them, and all I could think of was how fast those animals can run and how screwed we’d be if they decided to give chase; however, with the exception of one or two, they were all laying down.

The kids were getting tired of walking around and Natalie was getting a little crabby, so we returned to the room and had some snacks and a little rest before we headed out to dinner. Exploring further from the Inn, we ventured through the snow to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, just south of the geyser, and decided to eat at the Grizzly Grill. It was more our speed: hamburgers, chicken nuggets, cokes and an old grizzled guy walking around asking us where we were from and how we liked the weather.

Looking out the window of our room, Old Faithful just erupted. Nice view.

The kids just had their bath for the night (it’s nearly 8pm and still no word from Jason and Raquel…last I heard they were at the West Entrance, having had to go around because of the snow, so I hope everything is okay). In the bathtub, the kids each had a piece of soap shaped like a bear, so fun was had even though there wasn’t a toy to be found.

Kara’s reading a new book and I’m ready to go to sleep.

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