Wow, this all seems a long time ago. Sorry for the delay – it’s a lot easier to get this stuff down from a new Mac laptop. More about that later. Anyway, here are the details from the last week or so.
Zion National Park: a case study in what happens when too many people visit. Shuttle buses herd you in, then vast groups of foreign tourists (like us, but with designer clothes) take over the few paths. An expensive nearby campground puts far too many people in a small space. The whole thing is simply unenjoyable for casual hikers like us.
Because of this unpleasant experience, we edited Bryce Canyon from our future plans, which was perhaps a mistake. Maybe not – every photo we’ve seen of the place since has been from the same angle – but the route passing by it is reputed to be one of the most scenic in the country. Yet if we’d done that, we’d have missed out on others, so I’ll leave it there.
The Grand Canyon (North Rim) was next up, a drive of several hours on, past several areas frequented by deer. These pronged animals are all well and good except that they’re profoundly thick, and like to eat near the road. They walk slowly.
But get past them, and you’re faced with one of the great natural wonders of the planet. Never have you seen such a big hole, so resembling a matte painting. It’s indescribably colossal, awesome in scale and depth. Lightning strikes attack the other side of the canyon, but our side remains dry. We drive for an hour for a different perspective at sunset; somewhat spoiled by the twits who’ve jumped past the fence to “get the best shot” but still incredible. Yeah, I’d recommend the Grand Canyon, and the North Rim is pretty tourist-free.
Onward around on a variation on the Grand Circle, and to Monument Valley. The Valley proper is part of an Native American reservation, and the best time to see it is sunrise. Clouds help neither sunset nor rise; neither do the stomach problems I had. The monuments are huge stands of rocks (mesas, buttes) poking out of the desert as in a road runner cartoon. Only very limited hiking is allowed, but a scenic drive reveals more odd formations. It’s a special part of the world, and the campsite’s pretty great. Give it a shot if you can.
Traditional ownership has meant that the area is not a theme park, and should be there for you and your grandchildren to see. Navajo locals sell inexpensive jewellery, expensive weavings and some pottery by the side of the road from chipboard huts. Actually some nice stuff, turquoise aplenty, often unique, and not all from the same factory as you might expect.
Onward, to Natural Bridges National Park on the way north. It’s small and interesting, but the drive there, by the Valley of the Gods, was better. Then, Moab, an oasis of nearly cool in the conservative, religious state of Utah.
(Joe Smith wanted more than one wife back in the 1800s, so he has a vision of John the Baptist making him into a latter-day saint. Bingo: Mormons.)
Utah’s like Norway for alcohol control: state-owned shops for anything over 3%. Good microbrews in town, though, good steak, and a good motel, so a fine time was had. Plus we’d been camping for a few nights, and expanded private space was very welcome.
A day trip: Arches National Park is one of the more enjoyable, accessible parks we’ve ever been to. Huge stone arches, old, new and unfinished, near and far from cars. (Motor vehicles, the blessing and curse. You don’t want too many people, but we’re not serious hikers. Middle ground is good.) Clambering around many of the arches is possible and fun – Double Arch was great; Landscape Arch spectacular from a distance. Like Death Valley, it was very hot and dry here, which seriously limits the hiking you can do. There’s little shade, and we tend to cleverly time our arrival for lunchtime. We do OK.
Canyonlands National Park is less well-known, and far less visited; a grand landscape kept at arm’s length. Enormous stretches of canyons within canyons can only be seen up close with a 4WD – the best reason we can think of to get one. The exception in this park is Mesa Arch, an arch atop a cliff framing a deep, immediate valley of stone and dust. An arch better than any in Arches.
North for just a stop, long driving until we couldn’t. I think this was the day we expected motels in smaller towns and found only tumbleweeds in hamlets. The motel we found was just like every other motel, but clean, under $60 including breakfast and near a cinema. Perfect.
Salt Lake City is just weird. At the centre is Temple Square. There’s a church, a tabernacle, a conference centre and more. An assembly line of newlyweds pop out of a long corridor, grooms with long tailcoats and brides in (surely) virginal white. They do their thing, come out of the door, then their photo is taken in a series of locations around the church, without ever having entered.
The funniest photo we saw was of a couple with arms raised, pointing toward the church spire. And this is all because a slightly nutty guy called Joe Smith got a bit randy and had a convenient vision. Wa-hey. (A real sighting? Imagination? I know which way Occam’s Razor cuts.)
So we look about. There’s a funeral on for a recently departed Elder, so the usual organ recital’s off and most buildings are closed. Only the rear of the tabernacle, the soundproofed (speaker-powered) section, is open to casual viewers. We saw the choir through glass, and heard them through the din of restless children.
We left, for Antelope Island, the largest island on the Great Salt Lake. Not just a salt flat, but a proper, salty lake you can sit and float in. Shame that big bits of it stink. Further shame that the water’s so far out that you have to walk for 10 minutes to get to it, through alternate soft sand and stony ground. The punchline is true; you really do float, and it’s like I imagine weightlessness.
Alas, the post-swim walk is long, dry and salt-encrusted. Free outdoor showers (just like home!) are helpful but insufficient. An earlier drive had shown us one bison nearby and a herd in the distance, hiding from the people in the cars, out of reach past the end of the road. Herds of theoretical bison.
That night, I got furious. We pulled up to one of the shaded tables near the water just as a couple was leaving, hauled our food from the car and began to eat. Then the couple came back and sat next to us to complete their diaries, write postcards, and finalise their taxes. Bastards. No more privacy, and the sun sets. A night from hell to follow: thunderstorms move past and bring us howling winds. Tenting about’s worst time.
North again to Alpine weather, hot blazing sun, cold shade. Clouds, if any, appear swiftly after lunch. Targhee National Forest presents itself at the right time, when we simply have to stop driving and settle down to eat and bed. At this point, we would have liked a motel, but they’re far between and few; those that are are pricey. So camping again. (Great site across the road from us, as mentioned in the last quick email.)
So, finally, to Yellowstone. The first national park in the world and one of the best known. For me, Yosemite was more recognisable, thanks to Ansel Adams’ body of work there. Yellowstone was that place with the geysers that Yogi didn’t come from. We plan a few nights, mostly to look at the geothermal features, and a night to relax.
First day, to Mammoth Hot Springs, where morons leave the trail past the clear signage to destroy the fragile environment and risk scalding by superheated water. (Ground can be deceptively thin near thermal features.) Elk spotting’s easy: drive around the main roads, look for cars stopped or slowing and cameras leading people too close to wild animals.
Next day, to Old Faithful and a full day of geyser chasing. The best known geyser in the world is impressive, predictable within 10 minutes, and worth seeing early. The crowds of tourists sitting waiting when there’s at least an hour until it pops are a source of amusement; there’s plenty more to see in the immediate neighbourhood. One of those is Grand geyser, which goes off only every several hours – just once in convenient viewing time. We settle in on the benches, and soon involuntarily eavesdrop on two groups of geyser nerds who’ve settled in for a long wait. One grandmother behind us, who’s been watching this geyser “play” since she was a child, is full of information imparted to her grandchildren, who aren’t patient.
“The small geyser is called Turban. Grand won’t play until Turban plays.” But there’s more to it than that. The pool’s got to be full, and Grand’s got to be ready when Turban plays, or Grand won’t play. Turban goes (bubbles and churns for a few minutes) every 10-20 minutes, so if Grand doesn’t go then, there’s a longer wait to be had.
The other group of nerds is a family of geyser watchers; they’ve spent up to six hours waiting for a geyser to go off, take pages of notes and walkie talkies connected to other people watching other geysers. The fate of these kids is sealed, but Grandma’s kids seem content not to know the details. Grandma, on arrival, reckons a good hour before Grand goes off, and so it proves. We waited for an hour and a half with the geyser nerds to see it happen, and it was absolutely worth it.
Huge quantities of boiling water and steam erupted into the air for several minutes, spurting and gasping repeatedly; when you think it’s over it yawns, sucks back and explodes again. The awesome, beautiful power of nature unleashed, far rarer and more impressive than Old Faithful. Of course, the nerds went a bit crazy: hooping, hollering and cheering. Shouting encouragement for the second eruption, then clapping at the end. Just like a football match or a blockbuster movie.
On cue at the close of Grand’s play, the doomed teenage geyser chaser got a call on his walkie talkie, “Beehive’s indicator’s going off!” and gathered his things together quickly. We followed the family to Beehive, an unpredictable geyser with an indicator that erupts about 20 minutes before the main show. One of the most powerful natural jets of water in the world, the wind shifted during its eruption and soaked many spectators. Given the warnings about boiling water, many ran for cover, but needlessly; the water goes up hot but comes down as cold rain. We saw other geysers, pools and springs this day, but none as impressive as these two.
Grand Prismatic Spring is notable for the coloured steam boiling from its surface, but isn’t as striking as in Yann-Arthus Bertrand’s Earth From the Air picture. You can’t get any height from the viewing boardwalk, and it’s named for the differently coloured thermophilic bacteria that live at different depths within the pool. Still very pretty.
After this day, mostly chores. Buying this and that, posting the other. Pizza, walking by the lake, part of a walk led by Ranger Tori around West Thumb’s thermal features. And another night camping. Too much camping by now, but at least Grant Village has showers. (Pay showers, but not time-limited, and of near-infinite value after about five nights without. Are you familiar with the Wet Ones cleansing process?)
Onward south… no, bugger it. If it’s too much for me to write, I can’t expect it to be read. More about Grand Teton National Park, the ERB-1, Craters of the Moon, Sawtooth NRA, Ontario (ID), Portland and the Oregon coast to say just yet. We’re sitting in a cheap motel in Newport, on Oregon’s coast, where the fog rolled in sometime today and never left. The classiness of the room is unimportant; the Olympics are on and it’s the size of the TV that matters. Shame it’s not the widescreen hi-def multichannel that the UK and Australia are enjoying now. I don’t see how we can camp while Australia’s still competing in the pool, and we miss Roy and HG’s commentary.
My watch is currently between dates; that means the flight is almost another day closer, when this all ends and we both discover our new lives and new home back in Brisbane. It’s exciting to travel, but to return home to a whole new life and the potential it holds is a joy that’s rarely experienced. To see, for the first time, the house we now own. To find new lives that don’t run on 9 to 5 lines. To reconnect with friends. Every trip away is great, but temporary. Our lives at home are the real deal, full of happy promise and, of course, more travel.
See you or talk to you soon.