Yellowstone National Park is the USA’s first national park, and probably the best known. It is part of the north-eastern wilderness; all mountains, trees, valleys, lakes, etc, but Yellowstone’s main attraction is the fact that it is part of a huge active volcanic plateau, with the earth farting life into hundreds of geysers in the area.
There are also warnings about the geysers. They are all surrounded by walkways and fences, are spewing boiling water and mud into the air at regular intervals, and they absolutely stink. They smell almost as bad as the duvet on the morning after ten pints of Guinness and a chicken vindaloo. But despite all this, a dozen people have been scorched to death (‘poached’?) in the past. In typical American Werewolf in London “stay on the road, keep off the moors” style, these people must have ignored the warnings and the gagging sensation that you feel whenever you get near these things and just stepped into them. Death by geyser – very messy and quite unromantic.
After snapping off a million geyser pictures I went to take a look at Old Faithful, the best-known and largest of the geysers. As reliable as Dirk Diggler and twice as impressive, it shoots off into the air at regular intervals throughout the day. As promised it did its business on time, but the spurting wasn’t as impressive as I thought it was going to be, no doubt partly because the weather was grey and gloomy and it started to sleet just before the performance. Still, another thing checked off the list of things to do before I die!
Apart from the geysers, Yellowstone has hundreds of miles of hiking, scenery, mountains, wildlife, lakes, blah blah blah, so I headed out to take a look at some of it. Without the ‘hiking’ part, obviously! About ten minutes into this adventure, the weather decided that a bit of gloominess and sleet wasn’t sufficient for those hardy souls who had ventured out here in the middle of summer, and a full-on winter blizzard was called for. Traffic ground to a standstill, visibility was down to zero, and the idea of looking at a few ‘viewpoints’ seemed to be a bit optimistic to say the least. So I headed down the mountain pass towards lower elevations to avoid being snowbound for the rest of the day.
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming
The Devil’s Tower is another National Monument, again stuck out in the middle of nowhere in an obscure part of Wyoming. But it came highly recommended and I had a few hours to spare, so I thought I would wander along and take a look. Before you get to the tower itself, you drive around the bottom of it through fields completely overrun by prairie dogs. These glorified guinea pigs are running around digging holes everywhere, and are quite tame. Of course in this land of frivolous lawsuits you are warned not to approach the prairie dogs because they are wild animals, they can bite, they are vicious man-eaters, etc., but they are actually quite cute and sit up on their back legs begging for food. I hadn’t had any breakfast yet and was starving, so they weren’t getting anything from me! They also tended to run across the road in front of your car, and a couple of them are lucky not to be considerably flatter than when they woke up in the morning.
The tower was named by the Red Indians that used to (and apparently still do) worship the structure. Oops, I should say ‘Native Americans’ to be politically correct. Anyway, these Red Indians still come along occasionally and worship this volcano, tying prayer flags and ribbons to trees in the woods surrounding it. When you’re walking through and coming across all these pieces of cloth tied there, it definitely gives you the spooky feeling that you’re in Blair Witch country. The tower itself is very impressive, although it is eroding very slowly. According to geologists, the last major slab fell off the tower around 10,000 years ago. Is that so? How on earth do they know this? These people are getting a grant from somewhere to live out in the countryside pretending they know how long ago a piece of rock fell off another piece of rock. Of course nobody can argue with them, but I assume that nobody is particularly bothered!
After spending an hour or so walking around the bottom of the tower, I spotted some people much higher up. Apparently you can buy a permit and climb to the top of the tower. All that after leaving your common sense behind, obviously. And is there a bar at the summit giving away free beer served by topless go-go dancers when you finally make it up there? Nope. There is some grass, a lot of wind (just what you want when you’re perched on a ledge almost a thousand feet above the ground), a few birds and some snakes. I decided to take their word for all that and leave the climbing to the nutters.
Wyoming. Isn’t that a Chinese basketball player?
With fame and fortune comes responsibility, and occasionally the need arises to make tough decisions. Today was one of those days. Initially I had planned to make a detour to see the Little Bighorn battlefield in northern Wyoming, but after a full day in the ‘saddle’ yesterday I really couldn’t be bothered to drive any further than was absolutely necessary, so I took the easy option and decided to forget all about Little Bighorns and see what Buffalo Bill got up to instead. I know that those of you reading this will be very sad to learn that you’re not going to get an intelligent and objective insight into the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but there you are. The very fact that you’re bothering to read this at all is quite sad in itself!
Buffalo Bill seems to be very popular in Wyoming. There is a dam, a state park, a reservoir, and even a whole town (Cody) named after him. All that notoriety for riding around on a horse shooting a few defenceless buffalo! I had a quick nose around the dam, bought a few postcards, and was suddenly struck with the fact that Buffalo Bill looks remarkably like my brother. All this means that the ‘buffalo’ nickname definitely comes from him chasing around after buffalo, and does NOT have anything to do with the fact that his face resembled the back-end of one. Absolutely not!
There is a set of five museums and visitors centres in Cody all paying homage to Buffalo Bill (quite why one big museum wouldn’t have done the trick instead of five separate ones, I have no idea), but you have to pay to get into them and I wasn’t THAT interested to know what he got up to all those years ago. I made do with watching some kids playing cowboys and Indians around the dodgy-looking tepees that were scattered around the car park. You can also go along to rodeos, take part in re-enactments of famous gunfights, pan for gold, and wrestle full-grown grizzly bears to your heart’s content.
After a brief flirtation with history and culture, I headed off into the mountains to take another million scenery photographs. On a hill, in the middle of nowhere, was a place called Dirty Annie’s. Purely for the sake of research, I wandered in to see if it was a strip club, but it turned out to be just a grocery store. And the only ‘dirty’ things about this particular Annie were her teeth and fingernails!
Cruising through the canyons and plains around the Bighorn (oo-err!) Mountains, I spotted a field full of aircraft. And not just small aircraft, these were dozens of full-sized passenger planes. I have absolutely no idea what they were doing there, or more to the point how they got there, as there isn’t an airport within a few hundred miles. Very strange!
Out in the sticks where everyone drives dodgy trucks and tractors, you have to be careful when you’re filling up at a gas station. Not only do they all have country music blaring out while you’re standing at the pump, but some of them sell a strange mixture called ‘gasohol’. It’s normal gasoline (yeah, ‘petrol’), but it’s mixed with alcohol. All of this was explained to me by a mechanic chappie when I limped the Dream Machine into his garage as it had started to kangaroo down the road. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than gasoline, so when the weather is hot it turns from a liquid into a gas. The gas can’t go down the fuel lines into your engine, so your vehicle starts to struggle a bit. Apparently I had unknowingly filled up with this ‘gasohol’ mixture while listening to Dolly Parton tearing her lungs out a few miles back. No wonder it was so cheap!
Not only is Wyoming the ‘rodeo capital of the world’, but it is also the ‘dinosaur capital of the world’ and the ‘cowboy capital of the world’, according to the regular billboards by the side of the road. The ‘Wyoming Cattlewomen’ had a few signs up as well, saying “Wyoming is the best beef state, Wyoming Cattlewomen. Enjoy both”. I’m not sure if by ‘both’ they meant Wyoming and beef or Wyoming and cattlewomen and I didn’t risk finding out, settling for dinner in a Korean restaurant (right next door to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet). Beats beans and farting around a campfire any day! The most bizarre sign was one you come across as you’re entering the town of Emblem. They have the elevation above sea level on there as well as the population. And the population of this town was 10! Hardly worth calling it a town, never mind painting a sign telling everybody. Even stranger was the fact that this place had its own post office!
Although it was the start of June, some of the roads in Wyoming still had snow on them. The scenery might be very beautiful, but the remoteness and the harshness of the conditions might be a bit much to take for nine months of the year.