Thursday, October 07, 2004

Yellowstone Nat'l Park, Prelude & Day One

Mom & Dad arrived in Missoula last Tuesday afternoon. The weather here was unbelievable; after two weeks of wet, cold and blustery weather Mother Nature decided to shine down on the northern was perfect. We went to The Depot for dinner and the service & food were both wonderful. I worked on Wednesday, letting Mom & Dad have a free day to enjoy our Indian Summer. We spent the evening looking at maps, going over accommodation possibilities and laughing about the fact we'd been planning this trip for two months but still had no idea what we were going to do or what direction we were headed.
My brotherChris arrived Wednesday night with his girlfriend Nicole. Thursday morning we all packed up, stood around the map and finally decided to head to Gardiner, Montana at the northern tip of Yellowstone. I came into the office to wrap up a few things before we stopped at Worden's Market on the way out of town for one of their awesome sandwiches. Worden's is a Missoula landmark and I always take visitors there for the food and the funky people watching.
The drive down to Gardiner, MT was fun because Chris and Nicole had never been to Montana, let alone the mountainous region of western Montana. Every turn shows something new. We stopped just east of Butte to get a photo of all of us at the Continental Divide. We laughed about that one quite a bit. We stopped in Bozeman and visited the Wheat Montana bakery, a very cool bakery where all the products are made from Montana spelt and wheat flour. We got some muffins for the next morning and some 9 grain cereal to make cookies with. Just east of Bozeman we got caught in a pretty hellacious rainstorm and the weather turned quite nasty. The drive from Livingston down to Gardiner was beautiful though, with big puffy rain clouds and spots of blazing sun combining to cast amazing shadows across the open meadows and on the mountain sides. Daylight was running out but we decided to pull a National Lampoon-esque stunt and zipped over to see Chico Hot Springs, the famous and quite quaint resort nestled at the foot of the mountains.
Gardiner is a small and historic town that serves as the Gateway to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The town was named after a man whose last name was Gardner, but local yore says the people who named it were Easterners who pronounced Gardner as Gardi-nerr and nobody knew how to spell anyway, so over a short period of time Gardner became Gardiner. There were French and American trappers in the area in the very early 1800's but it wasn't until 1872 that Ulysses S. Grant made Yellowstone the first National Park.
We stayed in a hotel overrun by what seemed like hundreds of Japanese high school students. When we checked in they were all over the first floor, crammed into conference rooms and any other open spaces, performing some type of experiment. None of them spoke any English, as far as I could ascertain, and their Japanese and local hosts were too swamped for me to try and figure out what the hell they were doing. A really funny side note is the clothes they all were wearing. The boys were wearing what I can only describe as Japanese-American western wear. Most of them had big huge belt buckles and boots but they also sported some very strange t-shirts and accessories. My brother came around a corner to find two of them doing back bends DOWN the stairs. They all had crazy hair working, with cowlicks and oily matted hair being the style du jour. It was a very surreal evening.
The next morning I awoke to the smell of cooking rice...Seriously. When I walked down the hall I saw at least 10 huge rice steamers lining the conference room with the students busily gulping down brekkie. We decided to eat at the Town Cafe and Hotel, a place Mom had called and was asked to call back because the woman answering the phone was also the waitress, hotel clerk and cashier. The food was your normal Mom & Pop cafe type and filled the stomach. I made the mistake of asking her what she thought of the possible introduction of a state sales tax...not a good idea. She proceeded to 'educate' me on the evil tax system and how Montanans knew not to let government get into their pockets because it would never leave. Interesting conversation at 8:30 AM.
We entered the park through the Original Entrance to Yellowstone and it had all the makings of a cold and cloudy day. Not to be deterred, Mom and I decided to take a soak in the Boiling River...a spot that up until last year was a sort of local secret. Now it has been discovered and as many as 200 people a day soak in the river during the high season. We were lucky to meet two couples from Steamboat Springs, Colorado and enjoyed the steaming pool with them. They've been coming to Yellowstone for 20 years and still haven't seen it all!
Soon afterwards we saw our first Elk and heard them bugle...a really cool sound that brought a big smile to all our faces. We cruised down to Mammouth Hot springs, stopping along the way to watch Mountain Goats, deer and Elk. At Mammouth we got to see the first geothermal activity at the mineral terrace. It was amazing. We then were treated to the first of two sightings of the rare and elusive black wolf. We actually stumbled across the first wolf by accident, having stopped to view some Sandhill Cranes feeding in a grassy meadow. A man next to us had a large scope and was watching a Bison, far off in the field when he spotted the wolf coming out of the treeline. He allowed us to look through his scope, which was so powerful the wolf appeared to be right next to us instead of the 1500 to 2000 yards away he really was. At one point I thought he was looking right into my eyes and it gave me goosebumps. My Mom started what soon became our mantra when she said, "I guess we can mark that off our list". Later it just became "Mark it Off", something we said often over the next two days.
We headed down to Old Faithful, stopping to see vents, coyotes, waterfalls and Bison along the way. Yellowstone is huge, covering something like 350 million acres, so the drive from Gardiner to Old Faithful is quite long. We arrived late in the afternoon and took our spot among the hundreds gathered to watch one of the world's three 'Old Faithful' geysers erupt. There are actually many geysers around Old Faithful and over 10,000 in the park! Old Faithful erupts every 92 minutes now and is slowing a bit but it was still a glorious sight to see. After such as big day we decided to back track a bit and head west to the West Yellowstone entrance. This is when things got really fun, because the closer it got to dusk, the more wildlife we got to see. There were massive Elk, river otters, bison and another black wolf seen. We even got to see two Elk face off across a meadow, bugling away, marking their territories as a large group of cows grazed nearby. It was a marvelous day.
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