Yellowstone National Park: My Asian FantasyBy Derek On July 3, 2012 Under Post, Uncategorized
“Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” – Seneca
When the seasons change it seems all countries have their unique quirks and customs to mark the passage of time. In Japan, the arrival of spring means the blooming of cherry blossoms, which is reason enough to get the office together and sit under a tree all night getting sloshed on sake, sing loudly and maybe paw the new OLs. Next door in China, the mid-autumn is welcomed with the faint hope that the moon this time will be bright enough to force enough light through the smog and under its feeble glow people will be able to enjoy their moon cakes – which, by the way, are definitely an acquired taste. (I’d rather scarf down a dirty diaper myself). And America, where we have just relocated to, is no different. During the summer it is a long standing American tradition to pack the family into a hot car stuffed with luggage and drive endless miles across the country to make a pilgrimage to Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. Beautiful it is but the park is located in sparsely populated Montana and Wyoming, where there are more animals than people, which means for most the journey covers distances of a thousand or more miles. Another part of this hallowed tradition is no matter from where the journey begins all must suffer little ones in the back seat incessantly demanding an answer to that question every parent hates, “Are we there yet?”
That is not to say that crossing the US by car or just a large part of it is without its own special rewards. “OK, kids. Who wants to go see the “World’s Largest Ball of String”? It’s just up ahead, another 30 miles or so.” Spontaneous offers like that are met with stony silence from my two little girls, Thing One and Thing Two buckled into the peanut gallery in the back and accompanied by a quiet but definitely evil glare from the wife sitting next to me. Thing Two pipes up, “I need to go wee-wee.” “What? Again?”
And so it goes.
The Moon Shot
After living in Asia for 15 years, I started fantasizing of having adventures with my family just like this. So, three weeks after arriving here in Seattle and already mightily bored furniture shopping with the wife (“What about this couch? Do you like the color? Derek? You’re not listening to me!”), I jammed everybody into the car at 4:30 AM and we drove 750 miles from our house to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park in one glorious Apollo-like moon shot. We stopped at gas stations to fill up the car tank, empty ours and scrape the various and colorful bits of suicidal insects plastered to the windshield. We ate in cafes where the waitress calls you “Honey,” and brings out your coffee in an enormous metal thermos containing enough lukewarm brown liquid to float a badger. One taste and you wonder if there really was a badger and as you swallow you suspect he left something behind. We ate huge plates of short stack pancakes, link sausages, scrambled eggs, toast and greasy hash browns using only a fork as faint strains of country music wafted gently around us; “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night that Chew Your Ass Out All Day Looong…” It was pure magic.
While waiting for the little ones outside the bathrooms I have time to glance at the community bulletin board. It is festooned with hand scrawled ads for items locally in hot demand: “Pit bull puppies for sale,” tempts one, “Horse manure by the ton,” blares an even more tantalizing note and finally, my fav; “E-Z Bail Bonds (Call AJ or Chad): Home Arrest Available! Clearly the BEST!”
The further east we travel from Seattle the drier the landscape became and, more importantly, the cheaper the prices. Café and diner food was more affordable as well as gas for the car which dropped from $4.65 a gallon to $3.83, or almost 20%. This was a good thing too, as the speed limit in Montana is 75 miles per hour so you can comfortably get to 80 mph, switch on the cruise control and burn up a whole lot of dinosaurs. As you rocket through the empty landscape under skies so blue it hurts your eyes you hope an animal of size, like a deaf and nearsighted bear doesn’t amble out in front of you. Your thoughts race along with the trees and meadows whipping by. Was that a deer over there? Shit, is he heading this way? Splunch! A hockey puck-sized brown bug crashes into the windshield flooding you with yellow and orange yuck, making the car look like it just sped through an abattoir. Flying past small dusty towns with names like Whisky Lake, Rat Gulch and Dry Heaves, one starts to get a real flavor of the old West.
Finally, after 14 hours of driving excitement we arrive and check into the best three-star hotel in town. West Yellowstone, the town, exists solely to serve the park which is two miles down the road. My dreams of camping in Yellowstone to the sounds of nature and being at the potential mercy of hungry grizzly bears was quickly shot down by the wife before we even left. “You want me to sit in the car for 750 miles in one crazy day and then go camping?” Ok, fair point. I can compromise.
Almost Gored to Death
Our hotel is very convenient; there is even a laundry room on each floor. It is so convenient the laundry is right next to our room. Our worldly belongings begin to rattle and shake with increasing volume and menace depending on the length of the spin cycle next door. After a beer or two in the room as the wife gives Thing One and Thing Two a shower, I decide to wander over and check it out. Open the door, step out in the hallway, turn left and I have arrived. I have arrived just in time to see a large upper middle aged woman pull some sails out of the dryer. Being fond of boats I see a kindred spirit and feel that buoyancy of being when far from home you serendipitously meet someone who shares an interest dear to your heart. Maybe I am a little strung out from all the driving or it could be the two beers on an empty stomach that causes me to try too hard. “Cool. You are a sailor too? I didn’t know you could sail in Montana.” The baffled behemoth shifts her massive bulk, looks up, and gives me a blank bovine stare. She slowly stops folding another voluminous lower under garment, “Whacha talkinbout,” she snorts. I realize with a sharp intake of breath, Christ, those aren’t sails at all.
Narrowly escaping death by blunt force trauma due to finding myself suddenly in a very small space with one of Yellowstone’s more dangerous beasts, a large and angry jumbo tourist, I flee stage right and duck back into the safety of the room.
What Drives America
What most visitors to the US who don’t venture outside of New York or Boston may not realize is that America is driven; pardon the pun, by cars. More than a form of transportation, your car is your identity and without one you are basically a nobody. The main form of identity card for all US citizens is not a passport but the driver license. Other than awkward family photos most people have no other identification. Given the country’s history with Henry Ford’s innovation of the mass assembly line (allowing him to crank out 15 million Model Ts in less than 20 years) and the often vast distances that people deal with on a daily basis, evolving into a car-oriented society is understandable. Upon this tool of transport innovations that created entirely new industries have sprung forth. The motel was conceived in San Luis Obispo, California right after WWII and many babies conceived thereafter. Drive-in restaurants followed. Drive-in movie theaters lasted decades before home entertainment video and porno DVDs made them obsolete. In Texas, they have drive-through liquor stores because, as they say in Texas, “Ah cain’t steer without mah beer.” America even took the automotive innovation theme as far as gangland hits; drive-by shootings are popular in some areas where the gangsters are too lazy to park.
So, why not a drive-through national park?
Is It a Grizzly?
Over three million people visit Yellowstone each year, about the same number as visitors to the Philippines, and almost all travel around the park in their car. The road system is shaped in a giant figure “8” and allows you to view large animals doing what large animals do from the comfort of your own automobile. Animals are easy to spot because where there might be an elk, bison or something furry there are a dozen cars stopped on both sides of the road. You see people standing outside armed with binoculars and cameras attached to howitzer-sized lenses all pointing in one direction. The more cars that have stopped the more likely it is something neat, like a grizzly bear. If there are only one or two cars on the roadside it may just be somebody scratching himself or maybe he’s watching a pair of fungus beetles humping. But you don’t know, so whenever anyone sees somebody else stopping at the road side EVERYBODY has to do the same. You really don’t want to drive by and then find out it wasn’t the fungus beetles getting it on but actually a grizzly bear ripping apart an elk.
Each day driving around the park we stopped at these impromptu gatherings and I joined the throng eagerly with binoculars at hand. “What is everyone looking at?” “Dunno,” was often the response of an equally clueless bystander. Somebody would eventually fess up to knowing what was going on. Once, a woman who obviously had never seen a tree in real life before told us in hushed tones, “It’s an owl’s nest way over there. There might even be some babies.” I responded with heavy disappointment lacing each word, “What? I stopped for this? I thought it might be a grizzly ripping apart an elk. I’m outta here.”
What are Your Options as an Elk?
So, you gotta feel for the elk. They are magnificent animals and the second largest deer in the world (the moose is first). But what are your options as an elk in Yellowstone? You are born in a pile of goo in some wet grass with flies in your face and you better get up right now and learn how to run because buddy, you are going to be hounded from day one by wolves and bears and the occasional cougar. (Being hounded by cougars reminds me of my 20s but that is a story for another time). You roam freely but you can’t stop moving because you are dinner on the hoof. What do you have to look forward to? Elk don’t get a break. They don’t get together with their buddies to watch the game. They are game. They can’t head to Vegas for the weekend. They don’t even have stag parties because only one badass elk gets the honeys and all the other guys have to go away and fight it out. It probably doesn’t matter that much, I guess, because all the girls look exactly the same. And your diet never ever changes either: grass for breakfast, grass for lunch, hey, what’s for dinner? Grass, amigo. The only thing you have to look forward to is a certain death of being savagely disemboweled alive by your most feared enemies unless you get lucky and fall off a cliff or drown.
The most iconic animal in the park is, of course, the buffalo or bison. (I took the photo above). Everyone knows these massive animals roamed the Great Plains freely from Canada to northern Mexico in the millions until firearms arrived with white settlers. For many decades, bison eradication was a plank in Washington, DC’s Indian eradication policy. The plains Indians required bison for food, so kill off all the bison and your Indian problem is solved. Today there are around 3,500 bison roaming Yellowstone, up from just 23 lonely and forlorn individuals 100 years ago. Bulls tip the scales anywhere from 2-3,000 pounds; these are big animals that are easy to spot (and shoot). Despite their enormous bulk they run fast too and have been clocked chasing annoying tourists at 40 mph. Normally bison don’t move around much and are most often seen lying down in the meadows patiently chewing regurgitated grass in an attempt to suck out some nutrition. The parallel with fund managers consuming and digesting virtually nutrition-free sell-side research struck me as I observed their daily labor. Of course, bison leave steaming piles behind them after their efforts while one may argue the steaming pile is what the fund manager faces to begin with.
Other than wildlife, Yellowstone’s main attraction is “Old Faithful,” a fantastic geyser that shoots boiling water up 150 feet into the air about every 90 minutes and so named in 1870 due to its predictable habits. Now a respected national monument and recognized around the globe, old timers used to use it to do their laundry. Apparently, it tears wool jammies to shreds but if you throw in a little soap and some cotton clothes your efforts will be rewarded as sparkling clean raiment rains down on you from on high. It’s probably more fun to watch too than the spinning front loader jobs found in laundromats across the country. Sadly, such hijinks are no longer allowed.
Another really neat thing about Yellowstone is the old west history that permeates the region. The settlement of western America is a fascinating story of toil, hardship, great bravery and screwing the Indian. Formerly the home of the Blackfeet, Hidatsa, Crow and Shoshone nations, discovery of rich gold and then copper deposits caused Congress to tear up or ignore any previously signed treaty with the different Native American tribes that had lived in the area for generations. When Crow chief Arapooish was told it was time to pack up all their teepees and “Git off this land,” his response to the idea of forced relocation was, “The Great Spirit placed the Crow country in exactly the right place.” The result was “The Great Father” in Washington DC shifted the Crow onto a reservation in a new place, well to the east of the park.
I somehow managed to persuade my wife that it would be a good idea to continue east, through Yellowstone, and out to Cody, Wyoming, which bills itself as “Home of the rodeo.” We took the children to see their first rodeo where cattle roping, bronco riding, tobacco spitting, ass slapping and a general good time was had by all. Surprisingly, Cody is also home to a large Smithsonian quality museum, “The Buffalo Bill Historical Center.” I spent a half day here by myself and saw lots of guns, as they have 2,500 firearms on display. The museum also has a fine collection of stuffed animals (the usual result of animal meets firearm) as well as other relics that presented the history of the region in a very impartial and interactive fashion.
One of my favorite exhibits was the knife and gun of “Liver-eating Johnson.” John Johnson was a mountain man and one of the first white men in the area. Johnson came to the area to trap around the 1840s from New Jersey (proving even then New Jersey is a good place to leave). His Indian wife and unborn child were killed by a Crow warrior one day while he was out on the trap line. And so began his two decade war with the entire Crow nation. Johnson was a big man, standing six feet tall and over 200 pounds of no nonsense muscle. Each Crow warrior he came across he killed. But he didn’t stop there –he would then cut out the liver and eat part of it. The Crow, naturally, took some offense to this and sent assassins after him for years. Johnson killed (“and ‘et’”) every one. His luck almost ran out once when he was ambushed by a group of Blackfoot warriors who tied him up and threw Johnson into a teepee with plans to sell him to the Crow. At night, get this, he CHEWS through his leather bonds, knocks out his Indian guard and then CUTS the guy’s leg off with his hunting knife, throws it over his shoulder and takes off into the dead of night. Johnson used the leg as food, travelling only at night through hostile territory in the winter until he reached a friendly trapper’s cabin he knew 200 miles away. The movie, “Jeremiah Johnson,” starring Robert Redford is based loosely on his life, although it is hard to imagine the always impeccably groomed Redford loping through the woods with a half-eaten human limb slung over his shoulder. Anyway, when I saw the knife in the museum I felt my leg twitch, it was a sizable weapon.
Our one week break was over and we started to head for home. The pilgrimage complete, it was now a time for reflection on all the wonderful things we had seen and learned. Fantasies of coming back to Yellowstone, this time in the snow covered winter filled my head as we hurtled down Interstate 90 for 15 hours back to Seattle. I try and gauge the wife’s interest in this foolishness, “You know, I’ve been thinking…” “No. We aren’t doing this again.”
- Derek Hillen