After the visit with Renee and her g-parents, I wound my way back through the rolling amber landscape of Montana. To help ease the monotony I listened to a book on CD. Although I was a little skeptical of actually enjoying listening to someone read me a book for hours on end, I had thought of this on my first day of driving and wished I’d bought some for the road. The driving music (Eagles, Bob Seger, Springsteen, etc.) I brought had already lost it’s road trip charm. Thankfully, my friend Renee had a great suggestion. Cracker Barrel, the rocking chair restaurant found all along highway exits, actually rents out books on CD that you can then return when you get to the next Cracker Barrel.
What a great idea, don’t ya think? The selection isn’t great though—you better love Daniel Steele and Nicholas Sparks novels. I found a book by Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl called Garlic and Sapphires. It was actually quite entertaining and chronicled her time as the food critic for the New York Times. She donned various costumes and personalities as she reviewed some of New York’s finest eateries. The next 6 hours of driving flew by and I wasn’t checking my mileage or maps at all.
Before I knew it I was driving under a beautiful stone arch welcoming me to Yellowstone National Park, as it had welcomed millions of other travelers since 1872 when Yellowstone became the world’s first national park.
I checked into the Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge, surprisingly cheaper than the few motels I’d checked before I entered the park. I dropped my bags and went out for a hike around the hot springs that are one of the natural phenomenon that make this park so famous. The park is chock full of hot springs, geysers, and crazy thermal activity making it the world’s largest thermal basin. The only other similar spots on earth are in Iceland, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe. I wound my way around the wood boardwalks of the hot springs. They looked like gooey mounds of melty marshmallow. Some were hard and chalky, while others oozed with hot water creating multihued pools of steaming springs.
After freshening up, I had a choice of two spots to eat. One was the Terrace Grill—a fast food spot with burgers and the like. The other was the lodge’s dining room. I decided to take the solo traveler plunge and headed straight for the dining room.
“Just one, please. “ I said as they handed me one of those vibrating disks that tell you when your table’s ready. I went across the street and changed into my ‘evening wear’ of jeans and a long sleeve shirt and grabbed some stuff to read about the park. As I walked back in the cool, clean night air, my buzzer went off.
It was a large room dimly lit by environmentally friendly fluorescent light bulbs screwed into rustic, antler chandeliers. I was surprised by the tasty smoked trout caeser salad and savory mushroom stuffed ravioli in a light cream sauce with a touch of truffle oil. I washed it all down with a glass of wine.
I unexpectedly really enjoyed myself and read about the park while I ate. Other couples and families ate around me and I honestly did not feel odd in the least bit. This is a good sign for my impending year! I realized not only is this a primer for my around- the-world trip because I’m traveling alone, but also because I’m in Yellowstone, I’m surrounded by tourists and non-English speakers which almost makes me feel like I’m already in a foreign country. I met folks from Hungary, Romania, France, Japan, and, of course, Australia. It just so happened that the Australian conservationist and ‘crocodile hunter,’ Steve Irwin, had died from a lethal stingray attack just a few days earlier.
The next morning I decided to go on a horseback ride and get off the ‘beaten path’ as it were. As the gal leading our horseback ride told us: Of the park’s 3,472 square miles, most visitor’s only stay on the main road and therefore only get to see 1% of the park. Of the 3 million people that traipse through every year, only 3% get off the main road to explore a little more. And now we were part of this 3%. Sadly, our tour only lasted an hour and then I was back with the other 97% of the tourists on the main road.
I saw the park highlights: The Grand Canyon (of Yellowstone…not the one from Arizona!), the lower and upper waterfalls, and Old Faithful (folks gathered around as if watching a rock concert). One of the most exciting things to see was the wildlife. Yellowstone National Park is one of the most successful wildlife sanctuaries in the world. Grizzly and black bears can be seen occasionally in the backcountry. The park also has several thousand elk, many deer, pronghorn antelopes, and moose. There are bands of bighorn sheep and about 2,200 bison. I was lucky enough to see a huge elk, a mom black bear and her two cubs, deer, and a bunch o’ bison!
After leaving the park’s south exit, you automatically drive right into Grand Teton National Park. The Teton Mountain range blew me away. It was truly awesome in every sense of the word. The Tetons are among the youngest mountains on the continent. The highest peak is that of Grand Teton at 13, 770 feet. The vistas looking out and up to the Teton peaks are truly amazing. The sun was setting as I drove south through Grand Teton National Park on my way to spend the night in the ski resort town of Jackson, Wyoming. I was in awe at the sheer size of these mountains. Something about their jagged high peaks against the beautiful pink sky and the blue lake in the foreground made me feel good to be alive.