Tag Archives: Yellowstone

Let it snow


Snow Shine

Note: For varying reasons, my husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.

June 27: My grandson, Shine, turned 9 shortly before he joined us for the summer. Born and bred in Miami, he has been exposed to a lot: art, Caribbean and Latin culture, hip-hop, cutting-edge cuisine, the beach. But our five-day, 2400-mile journey is opening his eyes to things he had previously not even imagined — when he can tear his eyes from his smart phone, that is. Kids these days can’t see the forest for the screens.

I’m guessing that if Shine has one single takeaway memory from this unanticipated summer, it’s his introduction to snow.

We prefer the northeast gate in and out of Yellowstone. The stretch of flat plain ringed by mountains provides some of the most dramatic animal spottings — we’ve seen wolves, grizzlies, mountain goats, and a honey badger here. On the other side of the gate, the Beartooth Scenic Highway takes you on a zigzagging course back and forth through Wyoming and Montana up to almost 11,000 foot high: above the treeline, among the clouds, to where in the middle of summer, you can still find snow.

Forewarned, Shine had been anticipating winter in June for days. “Pull over, pull over!” he kept asking as we glimpsed more and more white patches. but we knew vaster stretches of snow lay ahead. Finally, at the top of the world, we came to a valley where the frozen water nestled the blacktop. Beyond excited, my grandson put on his sneakers for the first time in weeks, and stepped into his first snow.

During the next half-hour, he went through most of the arsenal of snow activities: snowball fight, snow angel, an aborted attempt at a snow man. We drove a little further to a hill and got the boogie board, on its journey from the Pacific Ocean to Lake Superior, out of the truck. One push and he went unexpectedly far down the mountain slope: a champion first sled ride. But two speedy descents were enough: as any veteran sleigh rider knows, going down is easy, but trudging back up will take the wind out of you, especially in the high altitude.

Snow isn’t the only first of this trip for Shine. He has never been on a multi-state, multi-day road trip before. Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan: these are all new states for our grandson. Deserts, mountains, plains, forests: These are far from his Florida landscapes. Ideally, we would stop and savor these special firsts, go for a hike, swim in a lake. But this is scarcely an ideal year. We are trying to make tracks, to limit our possible coronavirus exposure as much as possible. So this aseasonal romp — one kid alone in a melting tundra — is our voyage highlight.

There’s one other thing we can usually count on from Beartooth: mountain goats. We saw them for the first time in our lives on our first trip through here about 10 years ago, and now we see the herd almost every summer. They didn’t disappoint us this year: A couple dozen white animals grazing several hundred feet away, kids and all.IMG_5409

On the other side of Beartooth, at the bottom of these august mountains, is one of our favorite stops: Red Lodge. It’s a small ski town that’s almost a tourist trap but decades away from Jackson Hell. Downtown Red Lodge is just a few blocks long, the whole town a similar width. In front of almost every business is a wooden bench encouraging travelers to sit, relax, socialize, people watch. This evening, while people were out, many of the benches sat empty.

In Red Lodge, we did something we used to do on a weekly basis, but hadn’t done since early March: We ate at a restaurant.

The Carbon County Steakhouse is probably the main reason we visit Red Lodge every year, especially since the bookstore closed. (According to Neil Gaiman, this means Red Lodge isn’t truly a town.) Specifically, the cowboy coffee sauce makes it our foodie destination. The syrupy glaze sweetly complements a Montana ribeye, and despite my love of animals, I love a good steak. We knew we were at least going to order takeout from the steakhouse. But we also love the atmosphere there, particularly in the courtyard out front. So when we saw that they had only a few tables set up outside, spaced at least six feet apart, we decided our dreary motel room was no setting for a fine meal — even if we had given it a thorough wipedown upon our arrival.

The steak was of course superb, as was my honey sage bourbon cocktail. But I was shocked when I realized the staff was not all wearing masks. We had the same waitress as last year, and she was concerned too. She told us that though the state had not mandated it, the restaurant had decided that everyone would start wearing masks next week, as the Fourth of July weekend marked the start of the real summer season. As she said, the workers are the ones being exposed to travelers from all over America, many of them seemingly unconcerned about the diseases their unmasked faces could spread. So the proletarian are asserting their safety themselves — beginning next week.

This is my main concern as we make this pandemic road trip: It is one thing for voyagers like us to take our lives into our own hands, whether it’s to sightsee or to bring family together or to take care of a loved one or to go somewhere where social distancing is a given or to do something besides sit in the house with your bored kids for yet another day. We should do all we can to not expose the workers who make our journeys possible along the way, and that means wearing masks and even  gloves, keeping six feet away, using credit cards not cash, and washing, washing, washing. Many businesses are happy for our patronage. As he walked around the lobby wiping doorknobs and surfaces, the

One kid alone in a melting tundra

desk clerk at a our Red Lodge motel told me he was glad they had reopened because two months of being cooped up with his teenage kids was not bringing the family closer together. But businesses do not want our germs.

Besides, what looks more Western than walking down the main street of a mountain town than a family of three with their faces half-covered by bandanas.

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Yellowstone at half mast

Antelope social distance

Sign at entrance to Grand Teton National Park

Note: My husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.

June 26: There are signs of the coronavirus everywhere. Store mascots and yard animals wear masks. A notice at the entrance to Grand Teton National Park shows antelopes social distancing. In Las Vegas a masked showgirl on a billboard announces, “Until it is safe to take off our clothes, we will remain dressed.” Covid-19 is taking the strip out of the Strip!

So even though it seems like a distressing number of people in what was once the wild West are not taking the pandemic seriously, this is not the same country I’ve driven across for decades. Still, I wish people in Wyoming were wearing masks more than they were in Utah. The state with a rodeo-rider mascot seems to be taking the threat of aquatic parasites more seriously than that of human viruses; we get stopped three times in one day to have our kayaks checked for foreign hitchhikers. Not all of the government officials wear masks.

Human ingenuity at a Wyoming road stop

In Yellowstone National Park, the effect of the pandemic is stark. With the hotels closed and dining halls open only for takeout, America’s pride and joy is at half-mast at best. After all, with no young people from Asia to work in the park, who would staff the facilities if the park system wanted to open up — which it wisely doesn’t. It’s strange not to hear the babylon of international travelers along the waterfall walkways. But with half the traffic and congestion, maybe this is the way the wilderness area should always be. Animals are always bold in Yellowstone, but it feels like we see more than ever this visit: mountain goats, elk, buffalo, pronghorns, many of them quite young.

Young elk at Mammoth Hot Springs

I’ve been coming to Yellowstone since I was a child, traveling with my family, pulling a camper trailer across America. I have a deep soft spot for this place and its myriad of natural wonders: lakes, rivers, waterfalls, geysers, plains, mountains, bright-blue geothermal pools, and of course, so many animals. We at least drive through here every year on our way to or from Michigan. This year, at the time of our visit, cabins with bathrooms and campgrounds are the only overnight facilities open. We rent a cabin near Lake Lodge. We are traveling as self-sufficiently as possible so we cook our own dinner and breakfast on the little briefcase barbecue my son got his dad for Christmas. Our stovetop espresso maker, a few sausages, and bagels fit perfectly on its top. We do break down for a couple rounds of to-go drinks from the Lake Lodge bar. There are limits to our social-distancing restrictions.

Yellowstone is actually the first place on our trip where we see people really taking the virus seriously. Hardly anyone patronizes the gift shop; people wear masks inside and outside (somewhat), and generally hikers step off the paths to let each other pass.

I realize we all have our own risk-taking calculus governing our response to the virus. Age, health, preconditions, economic class, race, ethnicity, and geographic location are all contributing factors. I am more adventurous than my friend with thyroid problems, more anxious than my 17-year-old son. Some readers might think I’m crazy to have ventured to Yellowstone at all; some park visitors might have wandered why I stood so far from them as they attempted conversation. Of course it has become clear how political ideologies are also fueling responses that should be based on reason and science, necessity and caution. I can’t say we had to make this trip but the need seemed to outweigh the risk, and we are being extremely careful; masks on every time we enter any building or are around people, gobs of hand sanitizer every time we climb back in the truck. I try not to judge how other people handle their own calculus, but as the surge in cases that has paralleled our journey makes the damage clear, I just don’t understand how governments can be so concerned about contaminated watercraft when they don’t even mandate masks.

Still as we drive through the magnificent scenery, I’m reminded how our national park system is one of our country’s greatest achievements — that we are a nation that does value the earth it is built on, even if we have lost our way.

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Snow in July

BeartoothJuly 11, 2011:    The rivers were rushing in Yellowstone too, the falls magnificent roaring cascades. I loved this park as a child, and haven’t been back in more than 20 years. Its scale and diversity loom even vaster than I remember: canyons, lakes, rivers, mountains, hot springs, geysers, volcanic rocks, vast green valleys, pine forests — the park truly has it all. And the animals: In our too short 24 hours there, we saw grizzlies, a black bear, scores of buffalo, elk wandering through Mammoth Hot Springs resort, a baby and mama deer, and a healthy coyote trotting across a field of yellow flowers. We were sobered and made cautious by the news that a man from Torrance had been mauled by a grizzly just a few miles from where we were staying. But we loved our sweet Western cabin at Canyon Lodge. I wish we could have stayed longer. Continue reading

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