Day 23. MT/WY: turd birds, bubbling mud, intellectuals

by Kevin May

Predictably for somewhere so nice, it was a non-smoking room but cigarettes were allowed in the reception lounge where morning coffee was also available on tap.

As I dosed up on toxins, I contemplated my road atlas. Today was the day for Yellowstone National Park. I had originally planned to go the long way round via the Bear Tooth Pass to enter it at the Northeast Entrance, but I was now inclined to follow the Yellowstone River, which was a more direct route from Livingston.

A number of people had told me that the Pass, while spectacular, was a very slow road. It certainly wiggled all over my map and I didn’t like the look of the 10,947 feet altitude reading.

I still needed to get a Montana souvenir. Next to the hotel was a shop called Gil’s, which posted the rather outrageous claim outside that if you couldn’t get it there, you couldn’t get it anywhere. I went in to have a look around and was taken by the shelf full of Montana Turd Birds. These were preserved (I assumed and hoped) herbivore faeces on pipe-cleaner legs with little feathers and bug eyes stuck on.

They were quite cute, and certainly something that I couldn’t imagine finding elsewhere and so I bought one. In noticeable contrast to the Clinton egg woman, the assistant carefully packaged it up as if she were wrapping a delicate flower.

I was buying these oddities as presents for my much better half’s birthday, which would coincide with the end of the trip when she was due to fly out and join me in the US to celebrate (hopefully). It was pleasing that I could now downplay expectations by telling her I’d just got her some old shit, while remaining entirely truthful about it.

It was cold and misty as I left Livingston and the same dampness held in the air throughout the drive down to the state line. I wished that I hadn’t warned John to identify me by my blue corduroy shorts as I could have done with wearing long trousers in those temperatures. The numerous maniacs that I saw on bicycles seemed blissfully oblivious to the rain and the chill.

New Mexico Pete had told me that the Yellowstone River appears to run uphill as you drive down this road, but I couldn’t see it myself. I stopped to have a look, but it definitely seemed to be running in the proper direction.

At Gardiner, I paid my 20 bucks entrance and was given a map and an info pack. The guy on the gate informed me that all roads were open apart from the one between Norris and Madison. A quick glance told me that this would mess up my plans. It meant that I wouldn’t be able to do a continuous loop if I wanted to see Old Faithful. It also meant that I’d miss out on such deliciously sounding places as Fountain Paint Pot, Firehole Lake and Biscuit Basin. The upside was that I’d now get to see the Mud Volcano.

The sights of Yellowstone, the first ever National Park as well as the largest caldera in the world, are well documented and it was a truly wondrous place. I had allowed myself an unusually generous 6 hours to drive around, and it was not nearly enough. There was good reason to get out of the car every few minutes, and you could click off a whole reel of film without even thinking about it.

For once, things absolutely did live up to their names. The stone was yellow, the petrified trees did look like rock, the mud volcano was a bubbling vat of stinky mud, and anything called Fall constituted quite a drop. I saw birds, bees, bears and bison, and legion other creatures whose names I’d never know. Even on this dank, grey day it was all a delight to behold.

I had arranged to meet John at 6 pm and so I made my way down to Old Faithful for about three. I had no idea that it erupted as frequently as every 30-90 minutes and I’d just missed one. It was next due to go off at 4.30, and it would be a squeak to make Jackson in ninety minutes.

I didn’t really want to be late for John. Not only had I never met him and he was doing me a massive favor by letting me stay at his house, Adam had also given me the impression that they’d not yet invented enough noughts to give a true reflection of the balance on his bank account. I figured that he was just not the sort of bloke you kept hanging around.

It was a tough call, but in the end I stayed. It seemed silly to be less than an hour from seeing something actually happen that I’d first learned about when I was nine, and miss it just for the sake of a social rendezvous.

I wandered about the Old Faithful area and marvelled at the colors and smells of the numerous natural hot springs. With fifteen minutes to the appointed time, I took up position. Old Faithful also lived up to its name and shot up its spew of boiling water bang on time. Well, more or less; it was three minutes late by my watch but it seemed churlish to quibble.

It was gone 5.30 by the time I escaped the park and joined the highway down to Jackson. The views of the Teton Range to my right were fantastic but I barely had time to look. I thought about stopping to telephone John, but there wasn’t a building in sight let alone a call box.

I motored on frantically. Luckily there was very little traffic and I was able to break the law quite a lot. We were due to be meeting in Nora’s Fish Creek Inn in Wilson, and my map suggested that there might be a short-cut bypassing Jackson if I turned right at Moose. When I came to the junction all that I could see was the Jackson Hole Airfield. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Taking the shortcut, or ever using an aeroplane to try to get to Jackson.

I pulled into the gravelled car park of the restaurant at 6.30 precisely. Inside was medium-posh. A middle-aged man approached holding out his hand to shake mine. The tentative “Kevin?” confirmed that this was John. I apologized profusely and he laughed. He’d been delayed himself and had only arrived three minutes before me. He couldn’t have been friendlier and was eager to find out all about my trip, although inevitably we were soon discussing the events of the last few days.

John described September 11th as America’s bar mitzvah. After years of sending in the cavalry to sort out problems in other lands, it had now had its nose bloodied on its own back doorstep and had thereby come of age. He felt that Europe’s great sympathy was down to the fact that both continents could now identify with each other better on the subject of terrorism. America was now “one of the gang”.

He also thought that the status of New York had been repositioned within America. Previously, most of the USA had begrudged being defined by what happened in NYC (and LA). New York had now become part of the heart of the US in a way that it hadn’t been a week ago.

He reckoned that since the end of the Cold War, the American public had been guilty of resting on their laurels. Having won the Cold War, people had not only become complacent but also a lot more selfish. In the absence of a common enemy or external threat to unify their spirit, the cry of “America, America, America” had been usurped by the cry of “Me, me, me”.

We drove back in tandem to his house that was way off the beaten track up in the hills. John said that I’d be welcome to watch the news on the TV if I wanted to, but that he wasn’t interested himself.

Today had been designated a national day of prayer, and he had no desire to “see America at its mawkish worst”. He didn’t care to be subjected to the national anthem being repeatedly mangled. He thought the US should consider adopting a different tune to the Star Spangled Banner, as “only a handful of folk in the country possessed the requisite operatic reach to sing it properly”.

John was originally from the east coast, but had moved here four years ago to get closer to nature. He’d intended moving to Colorado, but this was the only place he’d looked at where he’d felt really at home. Colorado was spoilt now and Jackson was getting that way too. The reason was that too many wealthy folk from the coasts were taking it into their heads to move to these parts and the new money was redefining the place. It had all become crassly commercialised, prices of everything were rocketing and all the local people were being forced out. I wasn’t sure whether John counted himself as a local or a new money arriviste.

John was one of the most circumspect, accomplished and erudite Americans whom I’d met, and a well of stories about all manner of subjects. I got the feeling that all these anecdotes had some principle behind them that he was trying to illustrate, but they were all strangely devoid of punch lines.

One of them was about a cook who got attacked by a bear. John recounted it in florid detail, elaborating on what the guy had been cooking, how he’d made the mistake of wiping his hands on his apron, how he’d curled up in a ball when attacked and then escaped into the river. I was almost on the edge of my seat as I heard that the bear then followed him into the water, when the tale just petered out.

When I excitedly asked what happened next, I was met by a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive “Oh, some guys came along in a row-boat and hit the bear with the oars and the cook was able to escape.” If I hadn’t asked, I would have just been left there dangling never to learn the outcome.

The next time it happened we just stared at each other. After what seemed like ten of the more bizarre minutes of my life (though in fact it was probably more like three), we both stood up, bade each other goodnight and agreed to be up at crack of sparrows for breakfast.