Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
In 1872, during an era of unprecedented growth and the continued doctrine of Manifest Destiny, the U.S. government decided to set aside nearly 3,500 square miles for the enjoyment of its people. That land couldn’t be bought, stolen, or borrowed. It was there for everyone, and was a remarkable development at a time of almost rabid desire for expansion and ownership.
It happened because not everyone thought Manifest Destiny, the idea that the U.S. had a divine right to take over whatever land it wanted, was a great idea. I learned in school that the policy of expansion was the policy. I never learned that there was opposition or that a vast number of citizens and politicians thought it was not only poppycock, but also immoral, amoral, and oppressive.
Fortunately, President Ulysses S. Grant was one of those politicians who thought land-grabbing wasn’t always a good thing. He turned that belief into law by signing legislation that created our first National Park. Ulysses S. Grant gave us Yellowstone.
We were up and out by 8:30 so we could get to Grand Prismatic Spring before the throngs, making a quick stop to take a photo of an actual, real live working phone booth near the campground entrance. (There’s little to no cell service in Yellowstone, and that’s how you can call if there’s an emergency. It’s quite anachronistic.) We got to the spring and found a parking spot just as a couple of tour buses were unloading, so we raced to the boardwalk and crossed over the Firehole River. On the way, Excelsior Geyser exhaled so much steam that we only knew it was there because a sign told us. A thick crowd milled near the spring itself. It was a polite group, with people shuffling in and out so everyone could see and get the obligatory photos. I overheard a retired man and woman talking about the National Parks they’ve visited.
“I never made it to Denali,” she said.
“You didn’t miss anything,” he countered.
I had to step away from that nonsense, and we went the opposite direction of the tour bus denizens, who were selfie-by-selfie getting closer to the main attraction. By the time we got back to the river, we’d counted five hats that had been blown into the unrecoverable muck.
We walked over the bridge as runoff from Excelsior dumped 4,000 gallons of boiling water into the river and we grumbled about the people beyond the “KEEP OUT – Revegetation Area” sign on the other side. Showing remarkable restraint, I did not point at them and scream “They’re degrading the surface!” But I wanted to. Oh, boy, I wanted to.
We crossed the Continental Divide, twice, before stopping at West Thumb Geyser Basin. I thought we might be done with the geothermal portion of the visit, but nope. Instead, we entered a caldera within a caldera, one as large as Crater Lake in Oregon.
About 600,000 years ago, an enormous volcano erupted leaving behind Yellowstone Caldera, a 30- by 45-mile basin. It was the third in a series of super-eruptions, the first of which had happened two million years ago, give or take a few millennia. Then 174,000 years ago another volcano in the same vicinity erupted, leaving behind what is now the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.
A boardwalk surrounded the geyser basin, part of it bordering the shore of the lake. It was an odd juxtaposition in a land of odd juxtapositions. On one side, a calm lake with mild ripples. On the other, a steaming chasm rimmed by green grass and yellow flowers, followed by ground leached of color surrounding an even deeper, bluer pool. Here and there were puddles of orange. In a sun-drenched glen of pines, an elk with a matted mane ate, ignoring the shutter clicks just a few yards away.
We made one more stop at one more waterfall, and then our Yellowstone visit was over.
The South Entrance of Yellowstone National Park leads to the North Entrance of Grand Teton National Park. The two are connected by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. We’d been on it since West Thumb, and would be for the next 27 miles. I was a bit surprised to see a parkway named after the financier and philanthropist. As I found out later, he deserved it.
It was Day 11, and the constant everything caught up with me. Sore throat, pressure headache, congestion. It felt like a cold, but we thought it might be altitude sickness combined with the sunburn I’d picked up. Whatever it was, it sucked.
I temporarily forgot about my discomfort when we stopped at Jackson Lake Overlook.
It was pristine. Sky-blue lake in front of us, raggedy peaks streaked with snow in the distance, tall grass and random wildflowers at our feet.
Surreal. Unreal. Pristine.
When you’re standing in that majesty, it doesn’t matter how you feel. It’s a place that consumes thought and screams LOOK AT ME.
We didn’t have a campsite reserved, so we stopped at the Colter Bay Visitor Center complex. I asked Joanie, the first ranger we found, what would be the best way to explore Grand Teton in my less-than-optimal state. She told me to drink lots of water (check), eat something salty (check), and drive to Gros Ventre campground. Joanie had been a ranger at Grand Teton for twenty years, so when she said that campground rarely filled, even though it was Saturday, we believed her. Figuring we had a little time to spare, we got a slice of pizza at the cafe and took advantage of their wifi to check email before driving south.
Sometimes on this road trip we’d listen to the radio. Mostly music from the 70s and 80s. Often, however, we drove in silence. We weren’t mad or upset, and it wasn’t that we had nothing to say to each other. It was simply that what we were witnessing through the windshield said it for us.
The Grand Tetons were like nothing I’d ever seen. They’re like nothing most people have ever seen, considering they’re made up of some of the oldest rock on earth. The range is the definition of “jagged peaks.” That may be a trope, a lazy description, except there’s little else that so aptly describes these mountains. While the rocks themselves are ancient, their upthrust from the earth is recent, relatively speaking. Age and erosion haven’t had a chance to smooth out their rough edges, so there they stand. Jagged.
We followed the Snake River south. Knowing there was construction at the turn to our campground, we avoided it with a quick stop at Mormon Row Historic District. Turning the corner from Antelope Flats Road, I instantly recognized the barn. It’s an iconic image of the west, with its peaked roof and the mountain range in the background. It’s been said the T.A. Moulton Barn is the most photographed barn in America. I added to that statistic, and we continued south.
Gros Ventre (pronounced grow vaunt) Campground borders the river of the same name. It’s in the middle of a grove of cottonwood trees, and with more than 300 sites is one of the bigger campgrounds in which we stayed. Although there are a few electric spots and room for RVs, they’ve also got a tent-only loop. Since that meant no generators kicking on early in the morning, we took one of those sites and quickly set up before heading back out to the park. I still didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t about to curl up on the air mattress. I told my body to chill out and stop being a brat. We had no time for these shenanigans.
Our next stop was the scene of another iconic photograph. The Snake River Overlook is the place where legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams took one of his most famous photos. Hired by the National Park Service, in 1942 Adams stood on top of a Pontiac and captured a shot that helped save Jackson Hole Valley.
At the time, Grand Teton National Park was a third of its current self, a mere 96,000 acres compared to today’s 310,000. The valley that Adams captured wasn’t part of that park. In fact, it was a hotbed of controversy. Starting in the late 1920s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had been buying up land through a shell enterprise known as the Snake River Valley Company with the intention of giving the goods to the National Park Service. His agents told the sellers that it would be used for conservation purposes, but they didn’t know what conservation purposes.
When the sellers found out who was buying it, and why, they were livid. (For one, they could have gotten Rockefeller prices instead of just plain ol’ fair market value.)
Congress, led by the Wyoming delegation, kept refusing to take the land. By 1942, Rockefeller was done and threatened to sell to the highest bidder if the government didn’t want it. After all, he’d spent $1.5 million to gather it up, and he was trying to give it to them. Surprisingly, even though this land was meant for the people, public sentiment was against the idea – until Ansel Adams’ photo showed them what they’d be missing. Since Wyoming was still vehemently opposed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act to create the Jackson Hole National Monument.
In 1950, it was combined with the National Park. To recognize Rockefeller’s role in preserving this area for all, a 24,000 acre parcel between Yellowstone and Grand Teton was established in 1972 and named the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.
After a stop at the Jackson Lake dam, we returned to camp. I sniffled my way through a dinner of chipotle chicken (pre-seasoned) and baked beans (canned) and willed my body to get over itself.