Thursday, May 25, 2000...

Greetings from Laramie, Wyoming, headed east and bound for US 6 in the morning.

Yesterday (Wednesday), en route to Yellowstone, I stopped at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. The BBHC is really four museums in one. Unsurprisingly, one of these museums is dedicated to Buffalo Bill Cody, who founded the town of Cody. After serving as a Pony Express rider and Indian scout, from roughly 1880-1910 Cody and his entourage traveled the world. Cody's Wild West Shows introduced several generations to the myths of the American frontier which would later be repeated in countless lame movies. (Annie Oakley was a regular in Cody's troupe; for a year or two, so was Sioux chief Sitting Bull.)

There's also a Plains Indian Museum, which was closed for renovations; a first-rate gallery of Western art; and a collection of more than 4,000 guns which held no interest for me. I was interested, however, to learn from a display of big game trophies in the Guns section that there's an official system for judging the quality of one's trophy heads. Size is important, but so is symmetry and the absence of scars or other defects. (Sounds like that scale could be used to judge people, too...)

Cody used to be an old Western town, its most prominent building the Irma Hotel once operated by Buffalo Bill himself. No more. All the major fast-food chains have set up shop here, as have K Mart and Wal-Mart. (On the bright side, I was able to stock up on snacks and beverages for a lot less than I'd have paid in the park.) The town still hosts a rodeo all summer, though.

Once in Yellowstone, I was surprised to learn that heavy winter snows would keep one link of the park's road system closed until mid-June. This was a major inconvenience for me. Yellowstone is roughly 60 miles square, with the main park road system resembling the number 8: two circles sharing a common middle link. I had planned to explore the northern loop today, the southern loop tomorrow before moving on, but the blockage had closed the east side of the top loop. I would have to drive through, then turn north and retrace my steps.

Bison, Yellowstone National Park

Every time I visit, a different animal seems most numerous. After the Year of the Deer and the Year of the Elk, 2000 is apparently the Year of the Bison. A handout at the park entrance warns visitors not to approach them too closely, but doesn't explain what to do when the bison is actually standing in the road. I kept a respectful distance – if I really wanted to be chased by stupid, hairy mammals, I'd insult the patrons of a biker bar.

First stop: a hike through some of the park's smaller thermal features. Bearing friendly names like Dragon's Mouth Spring, Mud Volcano, Sour Lake and Sulphur Cauldron, these were just small belches of putrid, near-boiling water compared to their brethren on the west side of the park. I then stopped at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, smaller than its Arizona counterpart but much more accessible. Too accessible, my legs and lungs were soon telling me, as I scrambled down to the brink of 109' Upper Falls and 308' Lower Falls, then staggered back up to the rim, breathing heavily at 7,800' above sea level. Whether from common sense or deference to my advancing age, I skipped one trail for which the ascent includes 309 stairs.

Looping westward, I came upon Yellowstone's most annoying animal: the Clueless Idiot in a Rented RV. This specimen drove 25 in a 45 MPH zone and regularly drove in the middle of the two-lane road to avoid bumps in the normal traffic lanes. He ignored the signs advising slower vehicles to pull over and let others pass – but since his left rear brake light was out, every time he slowed still further I briefly thought he might finally be showing consideration for the caravan which had formed behind him. Ha. The Florida plate should've been a giveaway – when you're used to driving 20 MPH below the speed limit and turning right from the left lane without signaling, why do anything different while on vacation?

Next came the Norris Geyser Basin, part of the world's biggest collection of thermal features. Three weeks ago Steamboat Geyser, the world's largest, erupted for the first time in eight or nine years, sending its plume of smoke and water almost 500 feet skyward. I had to settle for smaller spoutings, and for a view of the charred trees which burned during the 1988 wildfires. As I finished the last hike, I felt a few raindrops – an ominous sign. Hoping that the weather would clear, I drove straight through to the point on the northern loop where the road was blocked and then doubled back. No luck. Everything was there, but damned if I wanted to see it in the rain. If the sky clears, I'll turn north again in the morning before swinging down toward Old Faithful.

Today (Thursday) dawned overcast and drizzling once again. So much for turning north; instead I headed right for the Old Faithful area. Five or six miles inside the park boundary, the road was blocked by more than two dozen bison, including a half-dozen calves, idly ambling toward the day's grazing. The delay lasted just long enough for the sun to burn through the overcast.

Once in Yellowstone, it's not hard to find Old Faithful: just take the cloverleaf intersection to the geyser with its own mile-long, four-lane divided access road and parking for several thousand cars (or about 200 full-sized RVs). I walked past the rows of benches arrayed in a semicircle 50 yards or so from Old Faithful and headed down the path to its brethren in the Upper Geyser Basin.

Riverside Geyser, just bubbling

The weather was so good -- sunny, temperature in the mid-fifties, perfect walking weather -- that I spent the next two hours strolling four-plus miles of paths past geysers, pools which bubble without erupting, springs, and fumaroles, which, like diners after a Mexican meal, emit sulphurous gas without also spewing forth water. Geyser-watching is a hit or miss proposition, since most of the big attractions erupt only once or twice a day, but I was in luck. Riverside Geyser, which sends a 75-foot column of water arcing over the Firehole River, erupted 10 minutes after I got there, and while I stood waiting for Beehive Geyser to decide whether to erupt or merely to spit water five feet into the air from a side vent, I caught Old Faithful's show from a distance.

One of these vacations, I'll pack a few books and hang out in the geyser basin for hours on end, waiting for each in turn. But by late morning, I knew it was time to go -- I had another 100 miles of US 20 to cover on the west side of Yellowstone before turning east toward US 6. Leaving the park through West Yellowstone, Montana, I somehow resisted the temptation to stop at a newly-constructed IMAX theater less than 200 yards from the park entrance.

From West Yellowstone, US 20 climbs about eight miles to the Continental Divide on the Idaho border, then turns almost due south as it descends into fields full of Idaho's most noted export. Ashton, Idaho's welcome sign boasts of the town's preeminence in the field of seed potatoes, while further ahead, the town of Rigby throws a curve by dubbing itself the "Birthplace of Television." (Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth worked out some of the basic principles while growing up in Rigby -- probably from a realization that any outside distractions he could bring to town would be welcome.)

At Idaho Falls, a classic "Western" town with great old signs, I hopped the Interstate south, leaving US 20 behind. I'll finish the trip in August or September -- about 800 miles to go, with Boise the only town of any significance between Idaho Falls and the Pacific Ocean. In northern Utah, I turned east to rejoin my old friend the Lincoln Highway -- though for once I stuck to the Interstate. Tomorrow I zip down to Denver to meet US 6 for a three-day, thousand-mile journey back to Chicago. When the rest of America hits the road to start their Memorial Day weekend, I'll be meandering across southern Nebraska. That's one sure way to avoid traffic tieups...

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