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Heard at Old Faithful

“Social media is making us more anti-social.”
    Tom Green

In May and June of 2016 my sister visited Pat and me here in Montana. As I wrote then, she came in part to accompany our dad, who'd been here once before in 2004, the first year Pat and I lived here. Dad had a great time and often said he wanted to return.

My sister enjoyed her week here, during which we visited the National Bison Range and Yellowstone National Park. She wanted to return, this time bringing her husband (“Bro-in-law”) and youngest daughter (“Niece”); we'd made arrangements for this to happen in August, 2018, but a landslide in Glacier National Park closed Going-To-The-Sun Road for the season early in the year. To make up for that a tough fire season filled the sky with smoke to an eye-stinging level that obscured Montana's famed Big Sky, mountain ranges, and most everything else. We canceled that trip with the plan to try again, earlier in the year, in 2019. And this time hotel reservations, van rental, cool weather, and smoke-free skies came together just as we'd hoped, and despite the typical airline dumbshittery, the trip came off as planned.

Automotive Absurdity

My sister loved our 2016 drive through the National Bison Range so we did that again with me driving (as always, it seems) the rented Toyota Sienna van. The thing is larger than any vehicle I've owned, and being quite new it assaulted me with a dashboard full of distracting and often inscrutable technology, motorized doors and hatch, and outside mirrors with their own sensibilities concerning safety. We had some laughs (and groans) at the constant beeping, flashing of incomprehensible icons, and pop-up messages on the giant touch screen, some obviously (but not clearly) written by people whose first language and mine aren't the same. Bro-in-law spent half the trip with the van's owners manual, which fortunately is half-way decently indexed (“Rear Hatch: see Hatch, Rear”), open in his lap. With that, and advice from the gang in the back seats, we managed to decrypt and/or disable the worst of the van's helpful annoyances. Once mostly silenced it was a pretty enjoyable ride, and that's a Good Thing since we ended up driving about 1700 miles.

Fun on the Bus

Lake McDonald Sunset, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Sunset at Lake McDonald, the lake water blurred by a four-second shutter speed.

After the Bison Range we spent a couple of days in Glacier. On the first day I battled the crowds part-way up to the Sun Road's alpine section with lots of stops for picture-taking. I made a couple of successful waterfall photos thanks to a somewhat cloudy sky, Niece (who is, I should mention, 23 or 24 years old) made photos I'll never see with her Canon Rebel, and her parents held their phones in the classic “snap-and-post-to-social-media” pose and tapped away. We ended with a nice walk along the Trail of the Cedars. Darkening sky and thunder sent us back to the car at a good time for dinner. Later I went out alone for a sunset photo shoot on the shore of Lake McDonald. Less than ideal sky and light left me looking for ideas; I settled on using my variable neutral density filter and making some long exposures to blur the lake's surface. No great photos emerged, but a few are interesting. I'll keep them.

The next morning, apparently much earlier than Niece preferred, we had breakfast (at Eddie's, naturally), and then boarded one of the park's iconic Red Buses for a narrated tour of the Sun Road from Apgar up to Logan Pass and back. Pat and I have done this; it's great to sit back and let someone else drive, and the narration is both informative and great fun. Perhaps best (for me) is that I got to look around and see things one can't really see when driving that road, which in some sections demands one's full attention. After the tour we returned home to relax, have a nice dinner, and chatter until the Ohioans were tired, our time zone being two hours earlier than they're used to.

You Gotta See It

Lower Yellowstone Falls, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S.

Lower Yellowstone Falls on a partly cloudy afternoon.

The final segment of the gang's vacation would be a trip to Yellowstone and a couple of days seeing a few of the park's highlights. From our home in western Montana it's six-plus hours of driving, first on the green (in June) and mountainous west side of the continental divide, and later on the open plains of the east side, finally arriving in the Absaroka Mountain Range and Gardiner, Montana. In my opinion the drive is glorious, taking one through multiple environments, widely varying geology, elevations from under 2000 feet to nearly 7000, all before arriving in the park. At the risk of raising family ire, I have to confess to being disappointed and a little annoyed; the gang spent the drive sleeping, or tapping away on their phones, sometimes narrating the tweets or texts or social media posts or whatever the hell they were reading or writing, all while ignoring some of the prettiest (in my opinion, of course) country on the planet, all of it scenery they'd never seen before (OK, Sister had seen most of it once). But fine: let's call it me being weird and they being what passes for normal in this Age of Perpetual Connectedness and Here's What I'm Doing Right Now.

In the park we saw all of the major critter groups: black and grizzly bears, bison (buffalo), pronghorn, elk, and deer, missing moose, wolf, and coyote as commonly-viewed animals. We saw trumpeter swans and Harlequin ducks. We saw bubbling mud pots, geysers, lakes, kettle ponds, and giant waterfalls. We saw mountains and rolling hills and open prairie. And people. Holy Population Bomb, we saw people. While the crowds seemed relatively light on our first full day in the park, during which we visited Mammoth, Tower, Swan Lake Flats, Hayden Valley, LeHardy Rapids, and drove over Dunraven Pass, the second day seemed like another planet on which everyone had been issued a car or truck and forced to enter Yellowstone, waiting to get into long lines to wait to get into parking areas. We visited Old Faithful and some of the other geothermal sites in the western part of the park, and sat in crowds and lines of cars like I've never seen anywhere. This is why Pat and I don't go in summer anymore.

In the “Life's Little Victories” category, at Old Faithful we lucked into a parking place after searching for only a few minutes, and that space was within sight of the Old Faithful Inn, which means relatively close to the geyser. We had ample time to browse the visitors center and gift shop, and then made our way outside to wait for the geyser to erupt. Sister, Bro-in-law, and Niece plowed forward into the growing crowd on the decking surrounding Old Faithful's cone, while Pat and I sat in relative comfort in the shade a hundred yards or so away. Old Faithful's average eruption is 130 feet (40 m) high; getting fifty feet closer and deep into the throng of humanity doesn't make it more grand. Besides, Pat and I had seen the thing several times. It's a bit like visiting the Louvre and then waiting in long lines to see the Mona Lisa. Once you've seen it you wonder what the fuss is about. But they got to see it, and it was a pretty impressive eruption.

Overheard in America's First National Park

Panoramic view of Old Faithful and the faithful crowd

A wide view of the crowd as Old Faithful erupts. The panorama minimizes the impact of the crowd on the viewing experience. (Cell phone photo)


Sitting on a log waiting for the eruption, with small groups of people gathering in the same area, I heard some comments that tell you something about America, maybe. Or maybe not.

We crammed a lot of road miles, wildlife sightings, and stunning Rocky Mountain and western plains scenery into five days. We had a fine time, got to hang out with loved ones we don't see very often, and they went home with new stories, pictures, memories, and perhaps a little bit larger and brighter worldview. That seems to me a good definition of vacation.

July, 2019

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