Category Archives: Travel

Goodbye Yellowstone Roads

We said goodbye to the Yellowstone roads, as we drove them for one last time, on a Sunday afternoon. And after nearly a week of family reunion and sightseeing at Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, it was time to go the hell home.

We got our abrazos and valedictions out of the way in the evening. That way I could give my hungover relatives a chance to sleep in, while my wife and I hit the road early the next morning. I’m sure they appreciated that.

And we appreciated their company. They added to our Yellowstone experience, making our memories fuller and richer. I’m thankful for their presence.

Gratitude is a good thing, so I have some more thank you’s to pass out.

I want to thank the American taxpayer. If you pay taxes, thank you for the $4.27 that the average taxpayer contributes annually to our parks.

And I want to express my gratitude to our hosts at these two national parks. Both parks seemed orderly, very clean, and well-managed. So thank you, park rangers.

But they weren’t the true hosts. It’s the true hosts I want to thank the most. These would be the permanent residents of the parks. The animal kingdom citizens that contribute so much to the character of this wilderness.

They’re not hunted, and seem to possess little fear of humans. And so they went about their business, paying scant attention to all their biped admirers that slowed their cars or gathered in throngs by the sides of roads. And they nonchalantly and unwittingly posed for quite a few pictures for me, and so many others.

The following is a photographic tribute to the animals that hosted our visit. Thanks all you critters, both large and small, for your hospitality, and for putting on so many interesting and entertaining shows. (Except you, mosquitoes. You know what you did.)

A black bear crossing Cottonwood Creek near Jenny Lake, in Grand Teton National Park. Thank you bear, for ignoring me, and not eating me.

This fearless pheasant was captured walking on a fence rail on Fairy Falls Trail, near Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Hot Spring.

A mule deer that has apparently never known the terror of hunting season. We encountered her while hiking around Mud Volcano, in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley.

Canadian Geese beyond the steamy mist of Beryl Hot Spring, in Yellowstone.

I like bison, because they’re related to gnus. This gnu cousin in the Hayden Valley was rubbing up against the pine tree behind him. I don’t know bison well, but he kind of appeared ready to charge, when I snapped this photo. I can take a hint. I quickly got the hell out of there, retreating to my car.

While shooting bison like I was Buffalo Bill, I quickly recalibrated my camera to macro mode, to capture this Monarch butterfly. My next few shots of buffalo were also in macro mode. #%$*!

A marmot on a rocky hillside, behind Grand Geyser, in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

The best shot I could get of an osprey, hovering over the Firehole River at Biscuit Basin. This raptor put on an aerial acrobatic show for a gathering crowd, as it swooped, circled, and plunged into the water, searching for fish.

A duck in a buffalo watering hole, in the Lamar Valley.

A couple of bull elk by Yellowstone’s Madison River. It was rutting season, and one of the elk is calling some nearby females to join him for a party.

These guys were all over Yellowstone, and could be seen as reliably as Old Faithful. In fact, this chipmunk lives near some hot springs in the Upper Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful.

Old Faithful and Young Asshole

The Old Faithful area of Yellowstone is like a little town. It has souvenir shops, general stores, a hotel, a visitor center, a gas station, and about a thousand acres of parking lot.

You’d think parking would be easy, but the first day we tried to go there, the park rangers had half the parking lots closed. I don’t know why. But maybe that’s why they’re called “park” rangers.

The next try, we were successful. We found parking, but it was a long way from that famous teapot known as Old Faithful. My wife, Kay, and my sister-in-law, Connie, put on backpacks filled with snacks and water, for the long hike. My brother, Rowan, just carried his ever-present coffee mug. Which could also have been named Old Faithful.

I carried my camera and camera bag. And I also wore four layers of clothes, because it was in the frickin’ 40’s that early in the morning. My camera bag is very roomy, and I can use it for other things, besides cameras. Such as for storing my layers after I shed them, as the day warmed. My bag is sort of like a man purse. Or murse.

Wiley Jr is a real shutterbug. He carried not one, but two cameras. But no camera bag. And no backpack, either. One of his cameras is modern and lightweight, except for the one-ton bazooka zoom lens attached to it. The other is an old film camera, that would weigh a ton even without a big zoom lens. Yet it, too, was equipped with a giant heavy zoom. Like I say, he’s a real shutterbug, and is very much into photography.

But no worries. He’s young and strong, and if he’s willing to drape two cinder blocks around his neck, I figured more power to him.

So off we trudged toward Old Faithful, each with our own burdens dangling under our chins and off our backs.

The big teapot was a few minutes late. But when it went off, Wiley and I snapped a ton of photos as it sputtered, shot upward, and hosed the sky with its boiling hot gusher of water.

We watched this world famous geyser erupt three times. A large crowd begins to gather about a half-hour before the expected eruption. Rowan, ever the comedian, worked the crowd. He explained how geysers work. He said that park rangers operate large pumps below the surface. And when Old Faithful didn’t erupt at the exact, predicted time, Rowan sighed and opined, “Yep, that’s government for ya.”

After the excitement of the geyser died down, Rowan suggested we walk some of the trails in the area.

The Old Faithful area is also known as the Upper Geyser Basin. It’s loaded with hundreds of geysers and hot springs. And the roiling, Firehole River winds through it, gathering the boiling waters that spill from the earth.

The Firehole River. Or perhaps it’s one of the Five Rivers of Hades.

A reticulated network of trails and bridges covers the Upper Geyser Basin, with miles upon miles of hiking opportunities. Most of these trails are paved or boardwalk. They’re easy to walk, but seem labyrinthine and endless. I got the impression that you can hike all day and might not explore all the available footpaths.

But I was up to hiking some of it, and so was everyone else. So we shouldered our various burdens and followed Rowan through this wonderland of steam and boiling liquid.

Heart Spring and Lion Geyser. Unlike Rowan’s explanation, geysers actually come from hot water, heated by the underground magma of volcanoes (remember, Yellowstone is a volcano).

We did a lot of walking, and it was getting tiring. But an hour into it I was still having a great old time with my family, snapping hundreds of photos of all the natural marvels bubbling up from the ground. But if I had realized that Wiley Jr was as cunning as a coyote, perhaps I would have been more circumspect.

He walks up with his film camera in hand. “Hey Uncle Tippy! I’m out of film and don’t need this camera anymore. Can I put it in your camera bag? It’s getting kind of heavy.”

I imagined so. That fucking barbell must have been breaking his neck. But he’s the young asshole who brought it. And he’s the stupid son-of-a-bitch who didn’t bother to bring along a camera bag or backpack. Why the hell would he expect me to carry his lead weight?

Lion Geyser, erupting. The magma-heated water of a geyser passes through a narrow channel on its way to the earth’s surface. But heavier, cooler water at the top of the channel caps the heated water. This pressurizes it, allowing it to heat up to the boiling point. And when it boils, it flashes into steam, violently forcing the water up the channel, and erupting into a geyser.

But I’m a fucking idiot, too. I have a hard time telling people no sometimes. And I really liked Wiley. Up until this point. He was always so nice and well-mannered.

I peered inside my camera bag, looking for an excuse. I prevaricated.“Uh, let’s see . . . um, um, nope, I don’t think I have enough room here.” And that made me look stupider than hell, because there was all kinds of room in the bag, which Wiley could clearly see. But I was saving that room to store my layers.

The cunning Wiley seized upon my stupidity before I could come up with a better excuse. “Yeah, sure Uncle Tippy,” he helpfully offered, “You’ve got all kinds of room in there. How about here?” And in he thrust the camera. I immediately felt a tugging strain upon my neck.

A colorful hot spring near the edge of the forest.

Well fuck. Just fuck. Goddamn that asshole!

I silently bore my new burden like I was Christ at the 12 stations. I staggered from hot spring to hot spring, geyser to geyser, with my own geysers of hot sweat pumping off my neck.

Meanwhile, Wiley was delightfully skipping way ahead so he could take the time to compose his photos with his digital camera, using all kinds of complicated special settings. Little fucker.

Grand Geyser. The column of steam and water at the left is in constant eruption. But the main geyser erupts every 7 to 15 hours. It’s the tallest predictable geyser known, achieving heights up to 200 feet (Old Faithful averages 145 feet).

I was getting worn out. But the coffee drinkers learned that the nearest pit toilet was more than a mile further down the trail. So we doggedly headed for it, me bringing up the rear with my extra burden, dragging feet, and lack of urgency.

There are two kinds of geysers: Pool geysers, which erupt through pools of water, in violent bursts; and cone geysers, which erupt in steady, tall streams. Old Faithful is a cone geyser. And these are a few other examples of the cone variety.

By the time I arrived at the toilet, the late-morning sun had raised the mercury to the 80s. Everyone had already relieved themselves, and was sitting on a log, waiting for me while eating lunch.

This is a pool geyser. Notice the narrow channel in the middle, just waiting to spew forth superheated water?

I was on the verge of a heat stroke with my four layers of jacket, vest, shirt, and teeshirt. I decided to put on a demonstration for Wiley. I removed the camera bag from my neck, with a stagger of exaggerated weariness (but I didn’t have to exaggerate much). I exclaimed to no one in particular, “I’m about to die here, with all these layers. I need a place to store them.”

Wiley said nothing. Acted as if he didn’t even notice. The unconscious prick.

The erupting waters of a small, pool geyser.

So I did a striptease for him. I removed my jacket, then my vest, then both shirts. And, while barechested, I mused aloud about how little room there was in my camera bag, for these articles of clothing.

The young asshole stared off into space, as if he was in another world.

Giant Geyser has an unusual shape. It formed in a group of trees, resulting in a cone shaped like a hollowed out tree trunk.

Making a big show of it, I rolled my jacket up super tight, and searched for any available space in my camera bag. And I surprised myself. I found room. I repeated this process with my vest, straining dramaturgically. And again I found room. And I found room for the teeshirt too, goddamnit.

Granted, it took great effort to stuff the clothes in, and they stuck about halfway out of the bag. But there was room.

Now Wiley had no reason to act on my hints and volunteer to take his one-ton camera back. I was stuck.

Another example of the many colorful hot springs at Yellowstone.

We slogged back to the car, over long miles of trail, sidewalk, and parking lot, before I could finally remove the yoke from my neck. I mentioned to Rowan what a lazy bastard his grandson was. With burden lightened, my mood lightened. We both laughed about it.

But I made a mental note. Watch out for Wiley Cody, Jr. That nice, well-mannered little fucker is one cunning coyote.

Geysers are very rare geological phenomena. They only occur in volcanic areas, and only with a small percentage of volcanoes. Most geysers require the presence of rhyolite rock. This rock dissolves in hot water, forming a mineral called geyserite. The geyserite cements and seals the channel walls of the geyser, preventing them from breaking down during eruptions.

Motorhomes Vs. Motels

The Grand Prismatic Spring, at Yellowstone National Park, from above. To get a shot of this spring in all its colorific glory, conditions must be perfect. You must have a clear sky and warm temperatures. And you must capture it in the afternoon, when only a little steam is coming off it. Unfortunately, all the parking spots were taken at this time of day, so I had to rely upon Wikipedia for this polychromatic picture. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 3.0. https://sites.google.com/site/thebrockeninglory/.

My brother, Rowan, is a motorhome fanatic. Over the course of his life he’s owned various kinds of camping vehicles, including travel trailers, pop-up trailers, and fifth-wheels. But his preference is the Class C motorhome.

He hates motels.

And I hate motorhomes.

Rowan, my grandnephew Wiley, and I hiked the Fairy Falls trail to reach this overlook of the Grand Prismatic Spring. This shot was taken by me at about 8:30 am, with the temperature in the 50’s. Unfortunately the sun is too low, the spring is too steamy, and the air is not warm enough, to bring out the prismatic colors.

One problem with a motorhome is that everywhere you drive it, there it is. It’s a big, giant behemoth that doesn’t fit well into parking spaces, and that requires awkward and time-consuming unhooking and then hooking back up, every time you leave a campsite and return.

That’s why our car came in so handy during our Yellowstone trip. My wife, Kay, and I stayed in a cabin, in an RV park, while my brother hooked his motorhome up to a campsite in the same park. Every day, he and his family climbed into the back of my Outback, and off we’d go sightseeing. We left his atrocity-on-wheels behind, connected to its life support.

Rowan has been trying to convince me for years, to buy one of these snail shells. But I hate the idea of owning a motorhome. When I go on a road trip, I like to relax. But I imagine if I was driving one of those awkward galoots, I’d be constantly worried about sideswiping some bastard in my blind spot, or cutting a corner and taking out a stop sign, or backing over a troop of girl scouts.

I was able to catch a hint of iridescence with this shot.

But he found a way to tempt me. He told me that motorhome travel saves a ton of money over expensive motels. Now that’s the way to my heart. Money.

And he has a point. Motels are getting to be damned costly these days. If you want to stay at a motel where you don’t have to hide a pistol under your pillow, or use anti-itch creme after you get out of bed, or call the front desk for a plunger at 2:00 am, you have to put up a small ransom.

Generally, a halfway decent motel room will set a traveler back about $150 per night.

The runoff from Grand Prismatic creates a wide, foliated field of mineral-rich mud.

Rowan has also pointed out that I can save a lot of money on meals when owning a motorhome, by getting my wife to fix dinner rather than restaurants. But for some reason, Kay is not as enthusiastic about this point, as me.

My brother is a good salesman. However I like to analyze. And I’ve known Rowan since I was a kid. Even though he’s now a tax pro, I’ve never felt confident with his math. So I decided to put his claims under a microscope.

I put a spreadsheet together to analyze the financial pluses and minuses of owning a motorhome, versus using motels. I factored in the extra cost of fuel, driving these gas guzzlers, along with the cost of renting campsites; against savings in motel rooms and dining expenses.

A ground’s eye view of the Grand Prismatic Spring.

I won’t get into the weeds with every boring detail. I’ll just summarize. So you can save your nap for later. My spreadsheet indicates that on a typical 300-mile road trip day, I’d save a whopping $153 by driving a motorhome, as opposed to staying at a motel.

Zounds!

So this is why I see so many tin cans on wheels out there on the highway. The Great American Tourist has figured out a nifty way to save money. I felt like a chump not having purchased a motorhome years ago.

The Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world. It is 370 feet wide, and 160 feet deep.

But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t finished my analysis. Motorhomes don’t just cost money when being driven. They also cost money when they’re parked in a driveway. Which for most owners is about 345 days out of the year.

So I put my numeracy skills to work again, and crunched more numbers.

First, a brand new, standard-sized Class C motorhome, of about 20-30 feet long, costs an average of about $75,000. If that $75,000 is invested in blue-chip stocks instead, it will earn about 6% annually. This is called opportunity cost. By shelling out $75,000 for a motorhome, I lose the opportunity to invest the money, as well as the potential earnings from that investment.

The annual opportunity cost of owning a motorhome is $75,000 * 6%, or $4,500.

The first Europeans to lay eyes upon this amazing spring were fur trappers, in 1839. They described it as a “boiling lake.”

My research indicates that a motorhome depreciates about 60% over a ten-year period, or an average of 6% per year. Thus, the depreciation cost adds another $4,500 per year to the expense of ownership.

Insurance will probably cost about $1,000 per year, and keeping it registered with the DMV will cost maybe $500 annually.

I understand that motorhomes need constant care. Even when they’re sitting around not being driven. So I’m going to throw in storage costs of $500 annually, even if my money-whirlpool sits on my own property.

No, this is not lava. Bacterial mats color the spring with greens, reds, and this striking orange.

That brings me to fixed annual costs of a staggering $11,000, for the privilege of owning a motorhome. Whether it’s driven anywhere or not.

To justify these high fixed costs, the motorhome would have to be driven 71.9 days per year, on road trips. That’s $11,000, divided by daily road trips savings of $153.

We aren’t musicians, traveling salespeople, or involved in any other peripatetic profession. So there’s no way we’d be needing to drive a motorhome that much. At most, my wife and I would probably drive one about 20 days per year.

And at 20 days per year, it would cost us an extra $7,840 per year to own a motor home, versus renting halfway decent motel rooms.

About 560 gallons of water per minute discharge from the Grand Prismatic Spring, along with more water from nearby Excelsior Geyser. The hot water flows in every direction away from the spring’s crater. This green runnel is cascading toward the nearby Firehole River.

And so, maybe I’m not such a chump after all. Motels win this battle of the budget. I’m sticking with my Outback, which I’ll keep using to handily pass these metallic slugs of the highway, as Kay and I travel America along a trail of roadside inns.

Sorry Rowan. You’re my brother, and I respect you. But you’ve gotta learn how to use a spreadsheet.

A boiling hot waterfall showers the Firehole River with runoff from the Grand Prismatic Spring and Excelsior Geyser.

The Lamar Valley

The Lamar Valley is where you’ll find most of the bison in Yellowstone. We encountered about a dozen herds, sometimes with hundreds of head.

Just north of Tower Fall we came to an intersection. If we turned right we’d head into the Lamar Valley, where we could end up driving two or three extra hours, sightseeing. Everyone in the car was all for it, notwithstanding their sore asses, so to the right I cranked the wheel.

Poachers reduced the Yellowstone bison numbers to about two dozen, by 1902. Then the U.S. Army stepped in and saved them from extinction. In August, 2018, their population was estimated at 4,527.

One of my blogging buddies, Jason Frels, recommended this drive. Jason has a photography blog, and if you want to learn some fine points of photography, or if you’re just into admiring beautiful photos, you’ll want to check out his blog. He maintains that he’s an amateur, but he could’ve fooled me. His pictures are professional looking, and he provides meticulous explanations for how he achieves them.

In winter, bison congregate in herds of about 20. But in summer they coalesce into an average of 200 per herd, with a maximum of 1,000.

But I’m just into admiring his beautiful photos, so I must admit that I haven’t learned much. I’m content with my hybrid, point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix B700.

Older females direct the herds, while the bulls just run around fighting each other over which cow they’re going to screw. The bulls weigh about 2,000 lbs, while the cows only weigh about 1,100 lbs. Both genders have humps and horns, but a cow’s horns tend to be slightly shorter than a bull’s.

In Yellowstone, I alternated between Auto Mode and Landscape Mode, with occasional forays into the Macro setting. But sometimes I’d forget which mode I was in, and then have a hell of a time focusing. And that should help you gauge my skill level at photography.

Most bison can be found in the Lamar Valley, but we spotted isolated bison all over Yellowstone. This giant was caught napping in the Washburn Range area, a little ways southwest of the Lamar Valley.

There was a time when I was more into the camera hobby. I knew that F-stop didn’t stand for, “Fuck! Stop and get a shot of that!” I had a comprehension of things like depth-of-field, aperture, and shutter speed. And I usually shot in Manual Mode. So sometimes when I’m reading Frel’s blog, I have a vague idea of what he’s talking about. But mostly, the fine points of shutterbugging have escaped my memory, and left me feeling grateful for Auto Mode.

Buffaloes can run up to 35 mph, and can jump over objects five feet high. So maintaining the required 25 yard distance from them gives you a sporting chance to escape a charge.

My Nikon has a fantastic 60X zoom, that will put you right on the horns of a buffalo, a mile away. And this came in very handy on our spin through the Lamar Valley, because this area is loaded with bison.

The rutting season is in July and August. And we indeed got stuck in a rut, waiting around hoping for these two lovers to put on a show. But she wasn’t having it.

All the park literature warns you to stay well clear of these shaggy beasts. At least 25 yards. But with my powerful zoom lens, I doubt I got any closer than 26. Actually, we unintentionally got much closer than that, because these big galoots have a funny habit of crossing the highway and causing huge traffic jams.

Why did the buffalo cross the road? To get to its photogenic side.

My wife took this photo with her cell phone, while I was driving. We were the warp in the woof of a traffic jam. These two bison are waiting for us and others to pass before taking their turn to weave their way across the road.

We witnessed massive herds, containing hundreds of bison, stippling the valley like the stubble on my wife’s unshaven legs. And these herds in Yellowstone are descendants of the original herds that have thrived here since prehistoric times. They have not been hybridized by interbreeding with cattle, like many other buffalo. Nope, these are the real McCoys.

The gestation period for buffaloes is about the same as for humans, about nine to nine-and-a-half months. In fact I’ve known a few humans who’ve given birth to buffaloes. At least that’s what I surmised when the proud parents showed me their “cute” baby pictures.

The bison are a sight to behold, but even without these animals, this would have been a sensational drive. The Lamar Valley is lush, with rolling green hills surrounded by higher mountains. And through the valley winds the Lamar River, a blue ribbon about 20 to 30 feet wide, banked by verdant tall grass, and smattered with riparian boscages.

Some Yellowstone bison are infected with brucellosis, which they can spread to livestock. During winter they often wander into Montana to graze on range land. Ranchers feel nervous about this, and sometimes kill these bison. This has resulted in much controversy and debate.

It was like a scene from history, going back to the days before our wide-open spaces filled up with people.

After humans, wolves and grizzly bears also prey on adult buffaloes. This tired old bag of bones seems like an easy target. Perhaps I should have warned him.

We drove all the way to Silver Gate, Montana, which is a small tourist trap a few miles past the park’s northeastern entrance. We returned the same way, to drink in this valley again. And though our asses were quite sore upon our return to our campsite, we were glad we did it. We considered this to be the most scenic of all our drives through Yellowstone.

So thank you, Jason Frels, for the suggestion.

A typical scene from the Lamar Valley.

Tippling

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces display their beauty about five miles south of the Montana border, in northwestern Yellowstone National Park. They’re one of the most popular features of Yellowstone, and are packed with my least favorite of all wild animals. The Tourist.

Alcoholism runs in my family. But I doubt we’re special. It probably runs in every family. My Dad, Orin Scully Gnu, was a wonderful, beautiful person to know. But he was also an alcoholic. I know this because he died of the DTs. And I believe you don’t die of the DTs unless you’re an alky.

Like father, like son. My brother, Rowan Waters Gnu, is also an alky. At least in my opinion. And so is his wife, Connie Tipples Gnu. In my opinion. And perhaps you’re thinking I am too, from of all these crazy family names I invented.

Mammoth Hot Springs is actually a complex of many hot springs, created over thousands of years.

But no, I quit drinking alcohol several decades ago, before any addiction could set in. I consider alcohol to be one of the deadliest poisons human beings commonly consume. It’s even worse than coffee. According to Psychology Today, alcohol kills nearly three times more people than all other drugs, combined (88,000 per year, compared to 30,000).

The largest known carbonate-depositing spring in the world is found at Mammoth. In fact, more than two tons of calcium carbonate flow into Mammoth each day. Which is probably enough to keep the whole world permanently free from heartburn.

I was a binge-drinker when I did drink. And I could get pie-eyed. There was that time a designated driver took me to a concert. I got so sozzled, that after the concert I insisted on finding my own car and driving home. I’d forgotten someone had driven me to the concert. And when I couldn’t find my car in the parking lot, I wanted to call the cops and report it stolen.

I shudder at what might have happened, had I not had a designated driver that day.

The calcium carbonate at these springs comes from limestone along a fault line that runs from within the Yellowstone caldera to Mammoth, which is outside the caldera.

But I’m a lightweight. A lot of drinkers handle booze better than I could. And some function better drunk than sober. Babe Ruth’s performance-enhancing drugs of choice were beer and Scotch whiskey. My Dad became superman after a six-pack. Alcohol is a miracle drug for my brother, too.

Travertine comes from geothermal vents, and there’s plenty of travertine at Mammoth. It accounts for the fibrous and concentric textures and patterns in the terraces, and the polychromatic appearance of white, tan, cream, and rust. Algae also accounts for some of the colors, especially the browns, oranges, reds, and greens.

Rowan and Connie have made a drinking rule for themselves. They don’t tipple until after 6:00 pm. But along about 4:00 or 5:00, you can hear them talking, salivating, and counting down for six. And as soon as that magic witching hour rolls around, pop go the beverage tops.

There’s a labyrinth of of stairways at these springs, that can seem endless, dragging your feet to higher and higher heights. My wife, Kay’s, coxalgia kicked in, and she quickly gave up and returned to the car. But not before gaining an eyeful of beauty that can be found at the bottommost level.

Rowan’s a beer man. He guzzles that shit down like water. Like he’s rowin’ in water. His preferred brand is Corona. But Connie tipples the hard stuff. She pours Diet Dr. Pepper into a tall tumbler, and tops it up with rum.

Up another level, and Connie stopped for a rest, with panting, sweating resignation. “D-don’t worry about me,” she heroically gasped,“I-I-I’ll be okay. I-I’ll catch up with you guys. Y-yes, yes, I-I’ll catch up. And if I can’t make it. I’ll find Kay. Back at the car.” So we continued on without her. And we never saw her again.

Rowan has a game called “Washers” that involves tossing large round, metal washers, into a box. It’s similar to horseshoes. We played that game at his campsite during the evenings, after finishing our Yellowstone sightseeing. And he kicked my ass most every game.

My grandnephew, Wiley Cody, Jr, was being a clever coyote. At 20-years-old, he could outwalk all of us old folks, and he got way ahead. He wasn’t about to let Rowan and me call him back so we could return to the soft, inviting comforts of my automobile, and drive back to our cozy campground.

You’d think with all his drinking, I could beat him. But no, in fact with each beer he only got better. And his sense of humor only got sharper and wittier. He’s just like my Dad. Dad’s game was pool. And you wouldn’t want to play pool against my father for money, after he’d put away a six-pack or two. But you wouldn’t mind hearing the laughter and humor. He was funny as hell. Just like my brother.

So we had to chase the fucker down. But the faster Rowan and I walked, the swifter he proceeded, disappearing higher and higher up staircases and hiding between hot springs terraces. Goddamned coyote.

The best way to beat my brother at a game of manual skill and dexterity, is to wait until he’s upset about something. The same strategy was effective against my Dad.

One thing that made it hard to catch up with Wiley, was that every 10 or 20 feet I was stopping to take a picture. How could I resist? There was new beauty found at every step. We were chasing a coyote through heaven.

One late afternoon around 5:45, Rowan was trying to resolve a computer issue over the phone with someone at his tax office. Nothing seemed to work, and he was feeling more and more frustrated. After he finished the call, he made the mistake of challenging me to a game of Washers.

I kicked his ass, 11-1.

We reached a top level and found a parking lot that was nearly empty. What the hell? The bottom levels were packed with cars, and we’d thought ourselves extremely lucky to pull into a spot right after somebody pulled out. But if we’d only gone around a corner and up a hill, we would have encountered a parking paradise, and been close to sensational sights like this.

Fortunately for him, the game finished at 6:00. A beer later, he narrowly edged me, 11-10. And by 7:00, I was on the wrong end of scores like 11-6, 11-3, etc, to a giggling sibling spouting one-liners a mile a minute.

That’s when I gave up and headed back to my cabin. I had to hit the hay, so I could get up at 4:00 and drag everyone else out of bed for another fun day at Yellowstone.

With wobbly legs, we finally cornered Wiley at a dead-end, in this remote location, far from my parked car. And in my view, this was the most beautiful hot spring of all of Mammoth. We spent a few minutes here, stunned by the visual, while keeping our cameras busy. I couldn’t be mad at Wiley. This spot made the chase all worthwhile. He truly was a cunning coyote, who’d won a place in my heart.

The Matriarch

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the first large canyon of the Yellowstone River. You might say it’s the matriarch.

We spent five days touring Yellowstone, and four were in my Outback. It’s a roomy vehicle, that was sufficient for us five adults, with me behind the wheel, my copilot wife, Kay, next to me, and my brother, Rowan, his wife, Connie, and my grandnephew Wiley, in the back seat.

Some claim the Yellowstone River gets its name from the Minnetaree tribe, who named it Mi tse a-da-zi (Yellow Rock River), after the yellow rock of this Grand Canyon it flows through.

Cell service is spotty in the park, but sufficient enough to hear the frequent sound of texts arriving at Connie’s phone. Connie is the matriarch of the family. She and Rowan have pockets as deep as the Grand Canyon. When a family member, whether child, grandchild, ex-in-law, sibling, nephew, or niece, has a problem, who do they call? Problem-Busters. Rowan and Connie.

But they don’t talk to Rowan. Connie holds the purse strings.

The Yellowstone River is about 692 miles long, and is the principal tributary of the upper Missouri River.

Their 29-year-old daughter, who lives with them rent-free, texted from a thousand miles away. She needed help with a flat tire. Connie texted back, suggesting she call Triple-A. Problem busted. It was nice to know that not all problem busting costs them money. Sometimes they just use a little brain power.

Their ex-daughter-in-law, whom they employ, and whom they help out with all kinds of problems, texted with a computer issue. Connie and Rowan conferred with each other, then texted the solution back. Problem busted. And again, with only brain power.

Their son, who lives rent-free down the street from Rowan and Connie, in a house Rowan and Connie owns, texted from a hospital about a medical emergency going on with a grandson. Brain power couldn’t help this time. But the problem was busted. They didn’t tell us how, but I wonder just how deep they had to reach into their Grand Canyon pockets.

Kay and I cast knowing looks at each other. We’ve seen this pattern before. In Kay’s parents.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is 24 miles long, and 800 to 1200 feet deep. The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River can be seen in the distance, marking the beginning of this Grand Canyon.

Kay’s mother, Ravena, was also a matriarch. And everyone came to her with their problems. And with a hand stretched out. And Ravena was always there for them, with a lecture on how to straighten out their lives, and a big wad of cash for their palms.

They never took her advice, but they always took the cash.

The Lower Falls of Yellowstone River tumble 308 feet, and are nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls. It’s flow rate is far less than that of Niagara, but still it drains more water than any other fall of the U.S. Rocky Mountains.

And they resented her. Her words of wisdom were trenchant and came from a place of deep and obsessive rumination. She was blunt and never let up. She ranted at them at length, as they squirmed in their chair.

For example, she often ranted to her promiscuous granddaughter, “A stiff prick has no conscience. Take your legs out of the air. Try having more than one kid from the same father.” (As she handed her money to buy baby clothes.)

I pity the fool who tries to navigate these waters in a rubber raft.

They may have gotten a fine handout from Ravena, but at the cost of their dignity, from her verbal browbeatings. And so between them and the matriarch existed the same kind of natural enmity that exists between an employer and employee. A tension that grows no gratitude.

Yellowstone Falls consists of two great cataracts, known as the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. You’ve seen Lower Falls. These are the Upper Falls. The Lower Falls are about a quarter-mile downstream, at the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

When my in-laws aged to the point of enfeeblement, nobody showed up to help. Because nobody had grown any gratitude.

Except Kay and me. But we had not been leaching off them. We always bought our own cars, and we paid off our own house. And when life threw catastrophes at us, we wrote the checks to cover the crises. So we stayed out of the browbeating line, and retained our dignity.

And for that, we felt gratitude.

Native Americans described Yellowstone Falls to Lewis and Clark. They dutifully made note of it, but did not believe the natives.

That made it possible for us to appreciate and love her, and my father-in-law, Jake, like no other family member could. We saw something in them beyond a handout. We developed a great friendship with them.

We took over their care. And we accompanied them through their final journey through life, saving them from the humiliation of nursing home confinement.

It wasn’t easy. And we’re no saints. Sometimes we wished we could run away from this heavy responsibility that trammeled our freedom. But we stuck it out. To the end.

The year 1824 marked the first time a European saw Yellowstone Falls. He was a French trapper named Baptise Ducharme.

I only hope Rowan and Connie will have a similar family member to love and care for them in their enfeebled years. But so far, I’ve seen no sign of it. The matriarch and my brother are traveling a path paved with ingratitude and abandonment. But perhaps, if there truly is a Unicorn god, and they pray hard enough to it, somebody will step up to the plate.

The Yellowstone River can vary dramatically in flow rate over the seasons, from as low as 680 cubic feet per second in the autumn, to 8,400 cubic feet per second during the late springtime.

I pulled into a parking lot at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The cell phone in the back seat went silent. A relief. Rowan and the matriarch were safe for the moment.

There was no service.

The canyon walls grow higher and higher, as the Yellowstone River flows closer and closer to the Lower Falls, and the beginning of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

How to Visit Yellowstone

A deep-green hot spring at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. We got into Yellowstone late, the first day, because we drove up from Grand Teton and came through the South Entrance. But the line was very short, as this gate doesn’t get as much use as other gates. But by the time we reached the West Thumb Geyser Basin it was afternoon, very crowded, and we barely found parking. Parking is very competitive at the hot springs sites of Yellowstone.

Our national parks are becoming more and more popular as tourist destinations, and thus, more and more crowded. These crowds makes it challenging to visit the most popular of our parks, due to long lines at entrance gates, and full parking lots at the most beautiful and celebrated natural features of any park.

An aqua-green hot spring, with the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake in the background.

Yellowstone was our first national park, established in 1872. So by default, it was our most popular park for a long time. But now others have surpassed it. According to National Geographic, in 2018 Great Smoky Mountains National Park was our most popular by attendance. It received over 11 million visitors. Number 2 was the Grand Canyon, with 6 million. Number 3 was Rocky Mountain National Park, with 4.5 million. Number 4 was Zion National Park, with 4.3 million. And straggling in at number 5 was Yellowstone, with 4.1 million.

This runoff from a hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin empties into Yellowstone Lake. The orange colored substance is called a bacterial mat. It’s produced by extremophiles that live in the boiling hot water, with names such as Pyrolobus fumarii, and Pyrococcus furiosus. I don’t think they cause diseases in humans, but if they did, could you imagine the fever you’d run?

But that’s still a lot of visitors, with long lines at entrance gates, and many full parking lots. I know, because I was at Yellowstone last month, with four of my relatives. And I learned the best way to beat the crowds to see this magnificent paradise in all its splendor. If you want to learn my secrets, consider the following advice from your tour guide, Tippy Gnu:

These two hot springs are nestled on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. They convert the nearby waters into a naturally heated swimming pool.

First, get the hell out of bed! Get up as early as possible. Way before dawn. I emphasized the importance of this to my relatives, and was somewhat successful. But while I was rising at 4:00 am, these sleepy-heads slept in until 5:00 and 6:00. Just the same, I was able to gather their corpses and stuff them into my car, and hit the road by 7:00, every morning.

Great Fountain Geyser, in the Lower Geyser Basin, along Firehole Lake Drive. If you look closely at the top-middle background, you can see an eruption of nearby White Dome Geyser.

If it was just me, I would have been on the road at least an hour earlier. But these bumbling coffee addicts simply can’t function until they’ve slurped down their first cup of java.

A white mud hot spring at Artists Paint Pots, near the Norris Geyser Basin. There’s a pool near this spring that shoots globs of white mud through the air. These sometimes strike spectators, leaving them speckled and perhaps a little annoyed.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice. Don’t drink coffee. Quit that nasty habit months before you reach Yellowstone, and you’ll discover newfound abilities to wake up early, and start functioning just as soon as your feet touch the floor.

A bacterial mat from a hot spring at Biscuit Basin. Or perhaps it’s marmalade, that spilled from one of the biscuits.

My third and final piece of advice is, if you insist on drinking coffee, then wear Depends. These coffee addicts carried mugs around with them all day, drinking and slurping and guzzling the brown stuff like it was a magical elixir. This delayed our travels from one spot to another, with their constant need to use the restroom. But if they had only worn Depends, they could have pissed their pants all day, and we could have seen more of nature’s wonders while simultaneously accommodating nature’s calls.

Every day that we sortied into Yellowstone, my coffee drinking companions had to find a piss-pot at least half a dozen times each. And these were two males and two females. Gender and supposed weaker-sex bladders had nothing to do with it. Nor did age, as one of the pissers was my 20-year-old grandnephew, Wiley Cody, Jr. You know, the Starbuck’s barista. Coffee was the culprit, my friends. Coffee.

As for me, I don’t drink it. And the most I ever had to use a restroom was once.

The Sapphire Pool at Biscuit Basin looks cool and inviting. But every overheated tourist who’s plunged in has been boiled alive, disintegrated, and never seen again.

We left at 7:00 am every morning, from the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, and quickly reached the West Entrance gate to the park, just a few miles away. And we never had to wait in a line. That was dandy.

An emerald green river flows through the Norris Geyser Basin. It’s been known to stimulate the bladders of many a coffee drinker. In fact after we finished our tour of this basin, I was anxious to get on the road before all the parking spots were taken at our next stop. But no, I had to wait. Because all four of my traveling companions had to hit the potty. Sigh. Frickin’ coffee.

Then we motored along a pre-planned route, to visit various sites in the park that we had in mind. And because we left so early, we almost always found a parking spot. We discovered that from about 7:00 to 10:00 AM, a place to park could always be had. But after 10:00, it gets iffy. Especially around the most popular sites, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring, and Mammoth Hot Springs.

Cliff Geyser, on the right, and Iron Spring Creek as it runs through the Black Sand Basin.

Also, we saw more wildlife early in the morning, than at other times of the day. The osprey, elk, and deer don’t drink coffee. So they’re able to be out and about during the wee hours, and without having to go wee-wee all the time.

New hot springs have a way of popping up in the middle of stands of trees, in Yellowstone, such as what occurred in this copse at Black Sand Basin. The mineral-rich water is nearly as poisonous as coffee. It’s sucked up by the trees and kills them. Meanwhile, silica in the water stains the bottom of their trunks white.

Let me illustrate the dangers of coffee, with a true story. We pulled into Biscuit Basin on a late-Sunday morning. We were in luck. We’d gotten there just in time, before the parking lot filled completely up. It’s a very popular hot springs site, and this was the first time we were able to find parking there, after several attempts.

And then my sister-in-law, Connie, announced, “I have to pee. Real bad. It can’t wait!” No surprise. She’d been drinking coffee all morning. We looked all around for the usual pit toilets that the park service plants at these sites. But there were no facilities.

We all gulped. I muttered to myself, “Ah shit. Fuckin’ coffee.” But my kind sister-in-law saved the day. She knew how disappointed we’d feel if we had to drive off to find an outhouse, then return to find no parking.

She reassured, with resignation in her voice, “That’s okay. I think I can hold it.”

Wonderful, I delighted, as I yanked the keys out of the ignition and sprang out of the car.

But my brother, Rowan, knew his wife better. “I’ll take you over to those woods,” he offered, “where you can find a private place to go.”

So the rest of us enjoyed the marvelous sights of Biscuit Basin, while Rowan and Connie attended to a different feature of nature. A little while later they returned, and quickly drank in the hot springs before we left. But before we could climb back into my car, Connie turned toward me with a glint in her eye.

“Hey Tippy,” she growled, “Wanna see something? I hurt my leg while trying to find a place to go.” Then she rolled up her pant leg. Up, up, up, it rolled, until finally it was near the pantyline. I felt uneasy gazing upon this much of her inner thigh.

Her exposed flesh revealed a long gash, incurred while trying to climb over a log that had a sharp, protruding branch. It looked nasty. In more ways than one. I shuddered. And I also felt the guilt-pang that Connie, the fucking coffee drinker, intended me to feel.

She healed up okay, but geez, if a nearby bear had smelled that blood, it would have been curtains for her.

So you see, coffee not only inconveniences yourself and others, it can be downright dangerous.

Therefore, to save your ass from bears, I’m going to recapitulate on the advice I gave earlier in this post. Here is the best way to visit Yellowstone:

  1. Get the hell out of bed. Early.
  2. Quit the coffee habit. Way before your visit.
  3. If you can’t quit, wear Depends.
  4. And I’ll add a fourth piece of advice. Never climb over a log with sharp branches sticking out of it. No matter how badly your coffee makes you want to go.

This is your bladder on coffee.

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