I am packed and on the road to Ashton by 6:30.
It looks like it will be a fine day - the air is clear and delicious. Gary & Laurie and I spoke by phone last night, discussing the ominous weather report, but we find we are all game to try, so I'm off to meet them at the Ranger Station in Ashton by 10AM.
My neighbor, Floss, recommended the route I am taking. Instead of going the way I already know, route 191 to West Yellowstone, she has sent me through Four Corners toward the small town of Norris - the same route I took in the spring to get to Three Forks. But I turn south at Norris and head to Ennis. Floss says it might be a tiny bit longer but the roads are very good, and not as windy or dangerous as the road through Gallatin Canyon.
Probably not quite as picturesque, either, but since it is an area I have yet to travel I bet I will enjoy it.
I reflect on my efforts of the last 24 hours, trying to find a balance between being prepared for all emergencies yet carry the least amount of weight. Yesterday I briefly considered buying a new backpack and tried on a few at Bob Wards, but in the end decided against it. I love my Alpine Lowe pack, but it is so old, it has no built-in water pouches; thus no convenient way to carry water. For Fairyland I carried a super duper fanny pack with water holsters but that was pretty heavy and may have contributed to my elbow-breaking fall so I have been looking for another solution. Last evening I finally settled on a "bungees and beeners" arrangement that works quite well.
I discover on the drive that my sweet little blue Mazda - Magda Blue - has no temperature gauge - so I must guess at how cold it is. Once I am past Four Corners I see virtually NO ONE on the road. The scenery is beautiful in that dry, austere, western way. Many fields of grain, rural, agricultural, as well as range dotted with horses and cattle.
I reach the Madison River and drive past the campground and begin to hear a pitter-pat on the windsheild - it's not rain but bugs, a healthy hatch of something is dying against the glass of my car.
There are many lovely glimpses of the river, flocks of ducks, a pronghorn, and two hawks soaring. Further on there is an historical marker for where the Bozeman Trail headed on to Virginia City. I pass a creek choked with willows and see a band of mule deer bending down for a drink.
And then I come into the town of Ennis. It's a real cowboy town, slightly decrepit, traditional and stereotypical but I bet it's worth a visit. And I see Ennis Lake in the distance. Just past Ennis, in a large green field is a surprising billboard - Obama 08!
Well, Floss is right about the roads. They are good, safe, well-maintained and nearly empty! And the scenery is much nicer than I expected.
I notice a large building on the right surrounded by cottonwoods - Wolf Creek River House - looks like a resort or a fishing camp. And I pass the Sun Ranch, which I believe is the same one whose owner is trying non-lethal means of protecting his herds from wolves.
Eventually I reach an intersection where I could go to West Yellowstone or south to Ashton. Some day I will take the other road and explore Hebgen and Quake Lake but this morning I stay on track and head south. Soon I find myself in Idaho and suddenly I notice many changes. First, I can see a large lake up ahead and suddenly there are houses - most look like summer rentals. Suddenly there is "traffic" and every once in a while a jogger on the road shoulder.
I am approaching Henry's Lake - a major summer attraction in this area. And a little while later I reach the junction of a very famous road, 20 West, which especially tickles me since I have just read a wonderful book about this Great Road, written by my fellow Loon, Mac Nelson. If you love roads, travel, and/or American History, do yourself a favor and buy this book!
Now the road changes again, a bit more modern, and serves far more civilization than I am used to seeing in the GYE. In addition to gorgeous vistas of mountains, forests and a winding river, there are gas stations, fast food joints, motels, tourist traps and lots of historical signage. There are also frequent billboards for "new trees", announcing the date of forest regeneration. Some may be from fires, but I suspect more are the result of logging. The road offers tantalizing glimpses of the Henry's Fork (of the Snake) and I see a variety of wildlife - swans, geese, ducks of all kinds, and osprey.
I pull over to read a sign about Harriman State Park (there is another Park by the same name in New York, donated by the same Harriman, a wealthy railroad and timber man). Suddenly I notice a familiar looking shadow looming against the eastern horizon. The Tetons! Haze obscures their well-known cragginess - they look like ghostly apparitions from here. But I find it gratifying to see how far south I've come and just to be near these fabled mountains again.
The road makes one last, long climb uphill and then begins a gently curving descent - and the view in the distance is amazing. A high, vast plain, it's farming and ranching heaven. It's enormous. And it is mostly green - crops are growing heartily in this rich, well-irrigated farm land west of the royal Tetons.
Laurie gives me one of their radios so we can chat back and forth along the way. Gary leads us through the tiny town of Ashton, past lovely farm country of rolling fields. We notice rows and rows of green leafy plants with white flowers blooming all a long the way.
We make the turn at the sign for Mesa Falls and head toward Cascade Corner. The road changes from paved to treated to gravel and the dust begins to fly. For a good deal of the drive I cannot see Gary's car ahead of me due to the dust cloud! I look right and left, remembering this drive from 10 years ago when I took my llama trip with Jill and Dave Hodges of Jackson Hole Llamas. Ah, what memories!
And just as I did then I find it so bizarre to see ear-tagged cattle roaming this "wilderness". Yuck. Finally we make the left to the Ranger Station and the dust settles a bit. Bechler Ranger Station looks exactly as it did when I was here last, although perhaps there is an additional building or two.
We transfer the necessary items from our cars and head over to the office to get our permits. We learn that it's a pretty busy time for the area (as expected) and try as we might to re-assign our third and fourth nights, all the sites are full. I'm glad to know there will be other backpackers in the area, in case we need help. I am still a bit leery of hiking with a small group. We also learn that the weather prediction is pretty much exactly what we DON'T want - rain tomorrow, rain,snow & sleet on Monday, more rain on Tuesday AM although partly sunny by Tuesday afternoon.
Now we pile into Magda Blue and begin to retrace our journey. But when we get back to the dusty road we decide that since we have made such good time we should "See Cave Falls" while we have the chance. The Cave River has a series of waterfalls in this area, and each one is more picturesque than the other. However it also has hungry skeeters who seem very happy to see us. Nevertheless, the sun is warm and spirits are high so we explore and pose and take photos.
For anyone wondering if this side trip is worth it - I say yes!
Once this adventure is behind us we rumble down the dusty road again and talk a bit of politics. We find we are all in Obama's camp. I tell Gary and Laurie how I listened to his speech accepting the nomination Thursday night on the radio in Bozeman. I still have no TV and I thoroughly enjoyed the low-tech aspect of it, especially because I find him a such a welcome throwback to the great statesman-speakers of America's past.
We also touch on the fresh news, that McCain rained on Obama's parade a bit by his surprise choice for VP - a woman from Alaska whom no one seems to know. (Doesn't that sound funny now?) I expected the news on Friday to be full of commentary on Obama's speech and instead it was all about the first Republican female nominee.
About half-way through the craziness that is Island Park we find ourselves hungry so we pull in to a Subway restaurant. Gary gets his favorite, Laurie & I share and somehow I win a prize - a coupon for a free cookie! Alas, they are out of cookies. So I save the coupon to use at another time. We have a laugh about it.
We continue our drive and Gary finds a message on his phone from Alphawolf and Lori - they have come up from Salt Lake just to see us off! It's so wonderful of them to do so. It gives me a very warm feeling. They will meet us for dinner in West. We make good time on our way back and find we have plenty of time to go on to Old Faithful to check in.
It feels so good to be back in the Park!
Things look good along the Madison - even a little green for nearly September. There is a crowd here, but people are moving along fine. I bet my cookie coupon that the first animal we will see is a bison. Laurie bets swan and Gary bets elk.
Just beyond 7 mile bridge Gary wins the coupon when we spot several elk on the edge of the meadow to the right. We watch a little while then go on. We see a few bison on our way to Old Faithful and check in at the Snow Lodge. Gary and Laurie have a Western cabin (nice) and I have a slightly more rustic Frontier. Our cabins are right around the corner from each other. We freshen up and now head back to West to meet the Nixons.
On our way we see an elk and a calf on an island in the Madison.
Now back in West we walk into Pete's Italian to find Mark and Lori sitting at a cozy wooden booth, beaming at us. It's great to see them and we have hugs all around. Lori asks about my arm right away so I show her how well it's healed.
The food is delicious and Gary buys a case of the restaurant's tomato sauce to take home with him. Mark and Lori show us photos of their grandchildren and we get an update on Mark's ankle, which has kept him from this trip. He is following the doc's orders and I just know it's gonna turn out ok.
We still have some light left so we decide to head back to the Park to see what animals we might find. But first we stop to admire Mark and Lori's new Prius. It is very cool and the dash board looks like a space ship!
As we drive back, I spot a bald eagle perched in a tree above the Madison. A little later we notice an elk cow and calf grazing near the road on our side of the river. I pull over and Mark follows. The cow and calf move away toward some other grazing elk, then step into the river and pause right in the middle, providing Gary and Mark with as lovely a shot as they could want. Clickety click click. The river is very low and the lovely animals move across to the other side where they get out and begin munching again.
The other two elk continue to graze so we watch them as well. Then we notice a bull bison coming toward us along the riverside trail. There are several large trees between the road and the path but I trust the far side of my car as bison-protection.
The huge animal lumbers by, thrilling anyone with a camera in hand, and cars slow down and stop.
The bison pauses by one of the trees and proceeds to rub his side for all he's worth, snorting every once in a while in either pleasure or annoyance. I have not yet mastered the subtle differences of meaning in bison snorts.
He moves on, following the beaten path along the river's edge. The two elk look up from their grazing, noting the approach of the bison but remaining where they are. The bison keeps going, then stops about 5 feet from the elk. The two species have a stare-down. Then the bison makes a sudden move. We all think he is about to charge the elk, but he is only bluffing! He just stomps at them, a bison equivalent of a sudden "boo!". Well, the elk jump out of their skins. They wheel and leap into the the river, boink boink boink and splash across fast as lightning.
The bison pauses a moment for effect, then, satisfied, continues on his way.
We laugh and laugh. I imagine the bison muttering to himself "Stupid elk. That'll teach them to show me some respect".
As we look across the river we see there are many more elk moving out from the trees. I see about five calves and even more cows. Some of the calves begin to romp and play, taking off in bursts of speed, only to stop and run back to their mothers. I count over a dozen cows and then I see one bull way out there.
And then we notice that the sky is painting a beautiful sunset behind us. Ah Yellowstone! Gary and Mark have a great time recording it for posterity.
But the light is going so reluctantly we pack up our glass and drive on. We reach Old Faithful and head to our beds. I set my alarm for 5AM.
Today I saw: antelope, bison, mule deer, ducks,1 bald eagle, elk, geese, 2 hawks, 2 osprey, pelicans, swans, and four Loons