Vacation Notes

August 19th, 2003  |  Published in Uncategorized

As Phil noted a few weeks ago (and the recent gallery entries reflect, Al and I spent a week vacationing with friends in the Grand Tetons & Yellowstone National Park. It was the first time I’ve been in either since 1987, when I worked in a Yellowstone dining room for the summer. A few notes on the trip within.


I had a sweet camp chair. It broke on the first day. I hate being chairless. Replaced it on the third day with a visit to the Flying Pig Camp Store in Gardiner, MT. The best part of the purchase was watching the clerk sell a tourist up on bear repellent:

“No way, man . . . you definitely want the one with the holster. Oh, and get the bigger one. It’s good for two attacks.”

I think I got the Tetons better than I did the last time I saw them, when my experience with mountains in general was limited to the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania. They’re incredible, and I was glad to spend a few nights in the park, sitting out on the beach of Jackson Lake and enjoying the sunsets. The site was pleasant. We stayed in the Coulter Bay campground, which had its share of RVs (about which more later) but we were on a loop that seemed limited to tenters and soft-tops, so there wasn’t any generator noise or the early-morning rumble of diesel-powered “ships of the road” pulling out for a day of gawking.

Yellowstone was a different bag. We found a camping spot at the Bridge Bay campground in the Lake region, which managed to come off about like the average KOA: we were lucky to end up in a stand of trees, but we were surrounded by massive RVs with huge, loud generators and engines. A few of the larger trailers were towed around by full-size semi trucks. Seemingly permanent RV-based residents held pow-wows at each others’ spreads and glowered at tenters with proprietary malice. We spent a lot of time speculating about geriatric wife-swapping and what one does with two satellite dishes.

In terms of useful advice, all I have to say about the campground is “avoid at all costs.” Between the continual hum of generators and air conditioners, the sound of jackass obnoxious Harley riders gunning their engines at sunrise, and the occasional sight of cats clawing at the walls of special cages their owners thoughtfully left out in the mid-day sun, there’s not much to recommend it except as a base camp to be left early as possible for a day’s exploring, which is how we used it. That was the low point of the trip, though, and if cramped density is the way to keep the rest of the park intact, fine: there are always back country camp sites that suffer none of the blight RV-bound spectacle-seekers inflict whereever they roost, and we could blame only ourselves for casting our lot with them.

Rather than providing a blow-by-blow of the trip, I’ll offer up this:

Yellowstone is two parks in one space. On the main road (referred to as the Grand Loop), you can trundle along in your RV or family car and never have to walk more than a few hundred meters from the pullouts to gawk at hot springs, mudpots, geysers, small ponds of boiling mud, bison, or elk. The loop provides a way to move along in orderly fashion, hopping out and looking appropriately awed or gratified before moving on to the next spectacle. The order is broken by the occasional “bear jam,” in which dozens of vehicles pile up on the shoulder because a bear (or moss-covered rock) has appeared in the distance, or because an elk sporting an incredible, velvety rack of antlers has decided to stand close enough to snap with a camera.

At the main stops in the loop, there are “general stores” stuffed with groceries, camping necessities, t-shirts, film, and gew-gaws. Bear bells, meant to be attached to a walking stick or hung from a belt loop to alert grizzly to your passage in the back country (Yellowstone’s other half, which I’ll get to), are nestled in alongside the Yellowstone National Park Commemorative Wind Chime set, sending the confusing message that they’re less a matter of self preservation in a dangerous place than they are a quaint knick-knack, less deserving of “serious” consideration than propane tanks, mosquito repellent, and tent stakes, which are in the “serious camper” section of the stores. At Canyon Village, for instance, there are two gift shops (the “Nature Shop” sells Franklin Mint-style miniature geysers and pewter bison), a full-service restaurant, a sandwich shop, a “quick service” restaurant (in less genteel settings you’d call it fast food), an ice cream parlor, and a mammoth general store (which sells everything the other two shops sell plus Oreos and sunblock). Old Faithful is even more accomodating, and aesthetics have collapsed in the face of the need to keep the tourists moving: the parking lot looks like an amusement park’s, and one of its gift shops has a cozy nook where dreamcatchers are on display while solemn, “spiritually meaningful” “native american” music plays and incense is burned.

A day or two on the loop, sandwiched between sleeping and waking in a crowded, noisy campground, borders on enervating simply from the stresses of navigating roads and crowds and the driving need to see. I began to remember the grim satisfaction workers in the park felt when there was a mauling or a scalding in a geyser, the way in which apocryphal stories of parents losing children to their own lard-assed stupidity and cow-like complacence about the sheer peril of wild things were traded around with self-righteous, smiling-through-the-frowning clucking. I remembered the way the first fatality of the summer inspired someone to write “Park: 1, Tourons: 0” on the kitchen chalkboard. On the second day of circling the loop, a niggling sense of self-loathing found voice:

“I used to hate these people. Now I’m one of them,” I said.

I felt locked in a cycle of endless puttering from one spectacle to the next, gawking and taking countless pictures of this or that, forgetting to just look at the vast meadows and lazy streams between attractions.

My first encounter with the back country this trip was a sign posted at a trailhead just off one of the observation points at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It warned the reader that setting foot on that trail meant entering a world without guard rails or rangers to tell you it’s stupid to set your kid down three feet in front of a bull elk to get its picture (yes, we saw just that happen, and it took a ranger happening by to break up the photo shoot). The trail began under thick canopy, providing a dark, forboding contrast to the glaring asphalt of the Canyon Touristplex.

On Thursday, we finally ended up taking a back country trail in the Pelican Valley. None of us were in particularly good shape for much of anything (I probably least of all because every little soldier’s trick I learned to finish a march was meant for someone with a body that’s been pounded and trained into surviving its owner’s willingness to ignore its complaints, not the work-at-home cookie-dough ass I’ve since acquired), so we picked a flat river valley trail that promised just the possibility of a grizzly or moose sighting and a short hike (six miles total). I put bear bells on my walking stick and we set out through a meadow and into some woods, happy to see only a few cars at the trailhead.

When we broke out of the woods and into the real body of the trail, we were greeted with a small plain that ran for miles. We saw an eagle keeping an eye on the river, we watched crows circling something off in the brush. We carefully walked around a buffalo parked near the trail. We missed the blaze that would have taken us to the thermally active lake at the end of the trail and walked along the base of the valley, threading our way between more bison and stopping to look at mounted riders in the distance. We crossed paths with a few people at one junction. The whole time, there was little noise but our occasional talk and the sound of the bear bells. Mainly, there was just the sheer amazing size of our own modest corner of the park’s nearly 3500 square miles; and the mixed sense of awe and a little fear that comes from being somewhere that’s still wild in some way, even if the worst predators have learned to stay away from the sound of a group of humans and their little bells.

We came off the trail after just a few hours out in the backcountry, footsore and tired. I also felt challenged in a way I haven’t in some time because the sour, resentful aggravation I felt with our neighbors at the campground has an easy remedy, which involves packing stuff in a backpack and going where RVs and Harley hogs aren’t allowed. Resenting those features of national park camping is futile.

For reasons that probably aren’t quite appropriate to broadcast yet, we probably won’t make it back to Yellowstone for a few years, and it’s looking like we’ll need to count the number of times we’ll be able to make it to even the Mount Hood region for much overnight camping before the year’s over. On the other hand, it’s become a matter of some urgency to be out in the wild again. My friend Amy said she found it remarkable that the urge to be outdoors could be rekindled in Yellowstone, perhaps the most battered and overexposed of the national parks, but it might be the sense of unease over the direction Yellowstone has moved over the years fueling that urge. Perhaps the wide open spaces found in the park system aren’t going to ever go away, but when they’re experienced by people who don’t want to do more than hop out and walk a half mile on a boardwalk before trundling off to the next spectacle, I wonder how vigorously they’ll be defended.

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