Category: Travel

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.

Big Tits

Grand Tetons is French for Big Tits,” I deadpanned to my passengers, as we approached the rugged mountain range.

It’s true. Well, mostly true. These mountains were originally named Les Trois Tetons (The Three Teats), by French-speaking trappers. The tallest of these teats is called Grand Teton, at 13,775 feet. So technically, there are no Grand Tetons (in the plural). There is just one Grand Teton, along with two smaller teats.

Grand Teton, the Big Tit, is at the left. The other two may or may not be in this frame. I can’t tell. They all look like tits, to me. In fact, I think there are many more than just three tits in this range. It’s fully of pointy and roundy projections, good for stimulating a horny trapper’s dreams.

But it sounded funny, and I thought I’d get a good laugh. Nothing. Silence. It fell flat. Flatter than my ironing-board-chested sister.

And that’s when I remembered. I have religious people in the car. My brother, Rowan, and his wife, Connie, don’t care much for such language.

The Tetons from the shore of Jackson Lake. Jackson Lake is a natural lake that was expanded in 1911, with the construction of the Jackson Lake Dam. The waters of the Snake River slither into and out of this body of water, and make it one of the largest high altitude lakes in the United States, at 6,772 feet elevation.

They haven’t been to church for years. They stopped attending after a scandal that they’ve only alluded to with sketchy, hushed details. But they claim that they’re still very religious, and believe in all that mumbo-jumbo that forms the doctrine of their faith.

Jackson Hole is a fairly wide and flat valley, adorned by the Tetons, to the west.

The word fuck is especially taboo with them. I tried to avoid it, but there was that time I was sitting at the picnic table, and Connie served me a hamburger that looked raw inside. When she saw my deer-in-the-headlights eyeballs, she offered to cook it a little longer.

So she extended a thin fork, for the purpose of hoisting that wide, unwieldy patty from my bun, back to the grill. A poor choice in tools, as a spatula is best for such a bulky operation. Less than one second later it plopped over, falling from the fork and hitting splat on top of the dirty picnic table surface.

The Tetons under a waning gibbous moon.

I’m a germaphobe, and this was all I could take. I uttered, “Fuck this procedure!” Everyone fell silent. The F-bomb, yes the fucking F-bomb, had just been dropped. Horrors. But I say, if you drop my fucking hamburger, I’m gonna drop the fucking F-bomb. I don’t care how religious you are.

At the left is magnificent Mt. Moran, of the Tetons, hovering above Jenny Lake. Jenny Lake is a very popular attraction at Grand Teton National Park. We arrived there somewhat early, about 9:00 am, and could barely find a parking spot. Damned tourists.

Apparently, I was forgiven in a Christian way, as Connie demurely picked up the patty and returned it to the grill. And I hope like fuck all the germs were destroyed by the heat, because I ended up eating the damned, dirty thing.

My brother, Rowan, and grand-nephew, Wiley Jr., decided to hike my legs off at Jenny Lake. So we took a stroll around the lake to a far-off, distant, godforsaken spot called Hidden Falls. You can’t see it from this perspective, but it’s over there. Somewhere. Hidden, as usual.

Like Lenny Bruce, I believe there are no dirty words, only dirty hamburger patties. And all such patties should be condemned to the hell of a barbecue grill, for heat-sterilization, if not thrown out entirely.

We started our hike at a bridge spanning Cottonwood Creek, when all of a sudden a park ranger appeared and told us to hold up. He warned there was a bear in the area. Then this hairy monster emerged, with her cubs.

The trappers were a foul-mouthed lot who appreciated so-called “dirty” humor. First, they named these mountains the Three Tits. That’s the best kind of woman to dance with. You get two in the front for rubbing against, and one in the back for playing with.

Momma bear playing with one of her baby bears, in the middle of Cottonwood Creek, while her other cub catches up.

Then they named the valley below the Three Tits, Jackson Hole, after a trapper named Davy Jackson, who was the first European-American to spend the entire winter there. Ostensibly, the term Hole comes from the steep descent into this valley from the Tetons, or opposite-side Gros Ventre mountains. It gave trappers the idea that they were descending into a kind of depression you might dig with a large shovel.

But I wonder if it was just that Davy was a real asshole.

The Gros Ventre mountains form the eastern boundary of Jackson Hole. Gros Ventre is French for “Big Belly”. So, at Jackson Hole you have big tits and a big belly. Somehow it all seems to go together.

The Snake River passes through Jackson Hole, which gives rise to more ribald double-entendres. Those trappers had quite the sense of humor, I tell ya.

Once the bear danger passed, we proceeded on our footslog to Hidden Falls, while enjoying spectacular views of Jenny Lake, such as this.

I was a trapper, too. I was driving, and had my religious brother and sister-in-law trapped in the back seat. I could have told more dirty jokes, but my wife, Kay, was sitting next to me, and I sensed a dirty look from her direction.

On the other side of the lake, between the trees, we could ogle the Tetons from closer range. So I guess that’s what all the motorboating was about, that I could see on the lake.

So I held my tongue and stared straight ahead, leering at the gorgeous beauty approaching. The pointy, perky, stony peaks, we commonly call The Grand Tetons.

Or, if you’ll forgive me for milking this joke further: The Big Tits.

Hidden Falls, sweating away in the cleavage of the Tetons.

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