We get into the park. The snack bar employees and servers are all foreign college students on student visas with special work waivers to work in the park over the summer. Checked into the lodge with a Romanian, bought coffee from a Vietnamese, ordered bison steak from a Colombian. What if the student UN ran the Aramark corporation?
The Mammoth Hot Springs Trail has all kinds of evidence of thermal energy & Mother Nature's design. Travertine Terraces is cool. This geothermal stuff is nothing lie I've ever seen. Almost worth the sulfur smell of deviled egg farts.
I wake up to the sunrise the next day. There's a fence around a steam vent in the parking lot. Nature's sucking chest wound. One vent will quiet and a nearby one will awaken, like the steam is playing Whack-A-Mole with us, trying to find mammals to burn.
We're surrounded by beautiful rare ways in which nature can kill us. The guest services binder in the cabin is full of ways Yellowstone can kill you. The thermal vents can boil you alive or expose you to meningitis. All the flora and fauna in the park will kill you, eat you or both, depending on its size. Ticks have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Birds have West Nile Virus. No Lyme Disease yet, but I'm sure the imagineers at the National Park Service are doing everything they can to maximize my park experience. Every advertisement in the binder is for hybrid cars and ecotourism.
We get a duplex cabin behind Mammoth Inn. Aimee takes a shower and the steam triggers the smoke alarm. The old guy on the other side of our duplex comes over. Aimee asks him to tell the front desk and he says, "I would, but we're going to breakfast." Which is NEXT DOOR to the front desk. This is the first of several cases of evidence that vest-pocket liberal eco-hypocrisy I encounter in the park. I'm sure his kids are proud of him.
I meet more exchange student service workers. Many are Romanian. I wish Mark Matusof was here to talk some Romanian. Romanians are beautiful people. I thought they were goofy-looking. Turns out it's only Mark. There's a pile of guitar comedians who can play guitar passably at best, but Matusof burns on the mandolin. He can make the mandolin sound more Jimi Hendrix than any guitar comic I've ever heard. Ioana's studying electronics signal engineering. Robert's a Phys. Ed. major and a Romanian Tae Kwon Do champion.
Aimee takes a picture of elk grazing around the Mammoth Hot Springs on the only proper grass lawns in the park, planted by the Army around WWI. On the lawn, elk look like squirrels, except they're big and can kill you.
The buildings and layout at the Mammoth entrance looks like the WWI Army base it used to be, and explains why the NPS uniform looks like a doughboy uniform.
We mail postcards at the Mammoth Post Office. Elk sun themselves on the manicured lawns. They don't care about the humans. They know they rule the block.
We look at the springs. Orange Spring Mound looks like a Hollywood prop. Orange Spring Mound looks stright out of a View-Master slide show.
We have coffee and donuts at Sheepeater Cliff, 60 feet of vertical columns of basalt. Aimee stands at the foot of Sheepeater Cliff for scale.
Sheepeater Cliff is about 12 Aimee-heights high by 40 Aimee-heights wide. We get in the car and turn a bend and there's a bison walking on the road toward three of his buddies walking the shoulder.
I don't bring the car to a full stop for Aimee to take a picture and get a lecture about "this is what we came to Yellowstone for."
The Porcelain Basin and Porcelain Basin Trail are straight outta Land of the Lost. If you're going to Yellowstone Park, be sure to wear a kerchief on your nose. Steamboat Geyser is awesome, but I can't inhale any more sulfur today.
We get to the Old Faithful Inn.
It's a big open-foyer hotel made out of exposed tree trunks in the Rustic style of architecture. The interior of Old Faithful Inn looks like something out of Lemony Snicket.
Very dark and German. It doesn't look constructed as much as woven out of tree trunks by 30-foot ants.
Saw Old Faithful. Waiting on the bench for the eruption, I get a cell phone signal for the first time since we enter the park, so I call my son. Aimee tells me I'm ruining her experience by talking on the phone.
We go to dinner in the Old Faithful Inn. I can't finish my $45 meal of elk medallions. Lotta coffee liqueur drinks on the menu for people trying to struggle through the elevation sickness. I don't mix coffee and liquor. I don't like soiling my pants while I'm picking a fight.
I sleep well. I wake up starving, so I go downstairs ahead of Aimee for breakfast. My waitress is Zusana, a Slovakian majoring in hotel and restaurant management. Finally, someone who belongs here. She looks at my shorts and asks, "Aren't you cold?" I tell her, "No, I'm fat." "Ha ha ha! No, no! Well, yes, you are fat." Gotta love that Baltic humor. Black as squid ink. Zusana is my favorite exchange student ever. I snoop on the lunatic conversations at the tables around me. Hey, crazy people need vacations, too.
After breakfast I go to the free coffee counter to refill my mug. The coffee starts to run out and I tip the pot, hoping someone knows the coffee urn etiquette that one person tips while the other person pours then you switch. No luck here. The vest-pocket eco-hypocrites start cutting in line behind me with that self-righteous liberal "excuse me." This is the best experience that embodies why I'm a moderate. Greens are dicks when it comes to getting their own. I vote Democrat more often than I vote Republican, but I thank the gods I live in a Red State. Republicans tip the coffee urn. It's how they were raised.
Old Faithful Inn has a landing on the second floor full of benches, all pointing at Old Faithful. Behind the benches is a beautiful sunset, to which all the benches and people had turned their backs. Geyser trumps sunset.
A lot of the geothermal stuff is cool because of the 3-D effect of the mist giving the eruption a constant perspective and scale. Sapphire Pool is a good example of how a camera doesn't show the perspective on the 3-D experience of geothermal features.
A 3-D camera would yield good benefits here. So would a handkerchief for the sulfur. If you learn anything from my writing, dear reader, it's to bring a kerchief to Yellowstone.
I get coffee. I tell the Romanian coffee clerk the "yes, you are fat" story and she says, "yes, Eastern Europeans are mean, but the Xanterra Corporation makes us be that way." I can imagine that employee orientation class. When encountering Americans, don't be funny, and don't be ironic. We wrestle in Jell-O to raise money for churches, so irony's kind of lost on us. And sweet Jesus, don't be witty. Our own comedians don't even use wit. Say something that has two meanings and you'll be on the next boat to Crapistan, Katerina.
Aimee and I are a mile and a third above sea level, so we're talking like stoners. We're looking at the map for where to drive to our next experience. Aimee says "I think the pink dots are where they, like, have stuff." This way outta normal talk for Aimee.
We stop at Mud Volcano. Dragon's Mouth Spring looks like a cave with the sound and steam that you'd swear was the breath of a dragon just inside the cave.
These geothermal formations are cool, but I'd be happy to never smell sulfur again. The Travel Channel doesn't drop the little factoid that all the geothermals in Yellowstone smell like rancid Easter Egg farts. Imagine you're drunk and the only thing in the house to eat is Easter Eggs from two weeks ago and they taste funny but you put salt on 'em and get 'em down and the next day you're sober and you drop a deuce and you foul the entire house? That's how God made Yellowstone. The views are great. Bring a handkerchief.
We go to Artist Point. Every j*ck*ff with is here with their camera tripod. An RV stops the flow of traffic to the parking lot while a lady in a cane shuffles out. The queue of cars honks at the RV. The lady stand still to yell at each car for honking at her as they advance into the parking lot. Vest-pocket liberal self-righteous, self-centered apes. They oughta be killed. The view was nice, though.
On the way to Canyon Village I see a park ranger arrest two hitchhikers. I've lived on or near an interstate most of my life and I've never actually seen a hitchhiker get arrested. Go Park Service!
We eat in the Canyon Village restaurant. At the next table, a lady is covered in a clear plastic sheet and sits in a wheelchair and drinks a coffee mug of soup through a pair of two-foot plastic straws. It's a waste for me to be here. They should have sent a poet.
God reveals perfection in the way we treat the imperfect. Many of them are employees of the Xanterra corporation. We try to check in and the Canyon Village desk clerk tells us that our room will be 2 1/2 hours late. I ask her what do we get in return for the room not being ready but Aimee settles me with a hand to my forearm. The clerk says "I don't know why everyone's angry at me today." I want to tell her that a check-in time is a promise and that keeping promises is the primary mechanism of civilization, but we're on vacation and I try to be nice.
We get our room key and we buy supplies at the store: lotion, milk, fashion magazines and a Stephen King book. Aimee gets a book about Yellowstone that mentions a few graveyards. In the quadplex cabin my resolve finally breaks and I admit to Aimee that I'm not having a good time because I'm worried about making sure she's having a good time and worrying about the next thing I'm going to do wrong. I have a breakthrough and realize that this vacation is not for me, that the secret is to enjoy watching her be happy. I've finally learned that couples vacations are not for men. Aimee tells me that today can be my day and that we can do whatever I want. So of course I have no idea what to do. I haven't had an opportunity to learn how to take control of a vacation, so I have nothing to say.
We drive to a petrified tree, protected by a high fence. The information monolith says there were two more petrified trees before they were picked clean by thoughtless souvenir hunters (subtext: don't be one.) There's a thick petrified trunk with a tight iron pointy fence around it. Looks like a Confederate graveyard. Small-wrought-iron fence, defining a tight square. Segregated unto death. The metaphor feels strong to me: this is a monument to a loser in a war with nature.
On our last day in the park I ask a ranger back at the Mammoth Visitors Center about the graveyards. He tells me about them, and they're both nearby. Mammoth Visitors center has photos by and of William H. Jackson Griffith, official photographer for the original USGS expeditions into Yellowstone. He's also the namesake and great-grandfather of Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead. I tell this to the ranger. He looks at me like I'm insane.
This happens a lot. Same thing happened when I went to the Parthenon in Nashville and talked to my dad and his mom about how the Greeks electroplated gold on the statue of Athena in the original Parthenon. The guard laughs at me and tells me my statement is crazy, and that the Ancient Greeks didn't have electroplating. I tell him electroplating goes back to ancient Egypt, but being right doesn't win arguments.
Aimee and I drive to the horseback riding ranch to see the first graveyard, 100 feet behind a pavilion where 100,000 tourists ride horses every year and don't give a damn about what's right behind them.
The graves are mostly of children, with the remainder mostly women and a few men. One Spanish War veteran with a new Spanish War Veteran seal stake. A brand new UNKNOWN CHILD marker. This graveyard's about 90 years old but I'd guess it was refurbished no more than five years ago. Many infant graves with the old shield of the U.S. seal. One grave was enclosed with a four-foot-high fence just around its perimeter.
We go to the other cemetery, just outside the Mammoth entrance to the park. This one has families and recent markers and future markers and "in memory of" markers, none of which were in the other cemetery. I've never seen a cemetery that offered a better view to the dead.
We get to the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch.
The cabin has no keys and a camp stove for heat. We never used the camp stove, but next time I'll pack thermal underwear. The cabin has a few books, including copies of the Watchtower and a near-mint condition original Delacorte Press hardcover copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that no one's bothered to steal. Honorable people, these ranch guests. The cabin is really charming. Clean and rustic. The fuse box was made by the now-defunct Montgomery Ward Co. and has glass fuses instead of circuit breakers. I haven't seen a glass fuse in ten years. The bathroom's clean and the amenities are nice.
There's bunnies everywhere. NQCR adopted them and the rabbits have warrens underneath the cabins. NQCR is in a high-risk Grizzly Bear Area, so the bunnies serve as a distant early warning system against the bears. Open the cabin door, see a bunny, all clear. The bunnies are so individually unique and plentiful they remind me of an hallucination. I'm thinking of denying their existence.
NQCR owner Kitty Kelsey says the "Amish" we saw in the Bozeman Wal-Mart were Hutterites. I'm sending her my pan-fried chicken recipe. NQCR feeds good. The cook's daughter roamed around dressed as a princess. I saw the cook giver her daughter a hug and almost cried, so perfect was the moment. Kitty gives me a recipe for raspberry vinaigrette with sour cream base and dried cherries.
Aimee and I go back into Yellowstone, this time with Aimee's sister and cousin. They go to see a geologic formation, but I'm already full of sulfur fumes, so I wait in the car and watch a guy use a hand-powered machine to fill tobacco into empty filtered cigarettes while his French-looking girlfriend with the bobcut and black bell-bottom pants eats buttered white bread.
A guy tells Aimee's cousin about someone who did something stupid where we are and either injured themselves or died. One of them says "Stupid is supposed to hurt." I want this on a t-shirt.
We eat lunch out of a picnic basket that NQCR packed for us. Cute and yummy.
We go back to NQCR for dinner. Our waiters are two guys from India and an Eastern European named Miroslav. I think Miroslav's a little sick of the guests, but I don't blame him.
The next day we go into Bozeman as part of a formal NQCR excursion. The burger joint uses cattle auction ear tags for order number tickets. I like the people here. People know the people around them. Not so with many DC residents. The essence of who people are is lost on them. People think of others as a collection of character defects.
There's a BYOB happy hour at NQCR every day at 5:30 PM, so buy liquor and setups before you get here. The Thursday happy hour is at the owner's house. The owner's mother shows me her collection of dead hummingbirds in zip-top bags.