Doug and Laurel Go West

Day 6: Friday 7/4/2003

Odometer: 1764 miles
3 Forks, Montana

We got up early this morning, because we wanted to get to Old Faithful in time for an 8AM ranger-led geyser tour, going on some back trails, etc. Alas, we didn’t make it. We would have made it, but we got behind a herd of buffalo on the road that were perfectly content not to give us room to pass. I wasn’t angry, it is hard to do anything but smile when your car is on the road with a Honda Accord in back of you and a herd of buffalo in front.

We walked around the geysers, and my mood was much better than it was yesterday. It was hard to believe that there wasn’t something mechanical working them – the boiling, the spurting, etc. This land looked so diseased. The most incredible parts, to me, were the two or three pools in the middle with bluish water so clean you could see the bottom perfectly and distinctly. These clear, clean pools , surrounded by this pestilence.

We wound up at Old Faithful, where half a family was communicating with the other half via sophisticated walkie-talkies. As the taller, it was my job to photograph Old Faithful when it blew. Great, Laurel, the world needs another picture of Old Faithful.

As we drove to the western exit, we saw a frisky brown bear across the river. Woo!

We got out of Yellowstone Park, and I thought I had reached my awe-capacity and I was going to spend another jaded day. But then we reached Montana Proper.

My god. My God.

Up until now, most of my “holy crap” moments have been vertical in some sense. They’ve involved looking up or down. Driving in Montana has been completely boffo in a horizontal sense. It’s amazing how much of it there is. It has to partially be an illusion; I’ve driven flat roads through featureless terrain where you can see to very far horizons, and they haven’t seemed so far away. Something about Montana, the way there are mountains so very distant but still visible, gives you a real sense of space.

There were “sights to see” of course. We stopped at Earthquake Lake, a lake that once was a road until an Earthquake changed the course of a river. (This happened less than 100 years ago, so it is safe for Creationists to look at) It was fun to look at, but not necessary; I could have driven across Montana all day without stopping. It’s actually good Montana is so wide.

We just passed a sign advertising “Custer’s last (root beer) stand.” I was very amused at the concept. Here is this battle where many brave men on both sides fought hard and died. Here was a battle where the United States forces lost, and widows and orphans cried and starved. And now… “Wanna go to Custer’s last stand?” “Aww… Mom…” “Custer’s last ROOT BEER stand!”

It inspired this commercial in my mind.

[There is a carload of people. Mom and Dad in front, Grandpa and two kids in the back. Grandpa looks very Jewish and old. ]

GPA: So vere are ve goink now?
DAD: To the Holocaust.

[Silence in the car. Grandpa is horrified, about to cry. Kids are shocked but amused. Mom is shocked with a look on her face that says, “Oh that husband of mine!”]


DAD: To the Hall o’ Cost Reduced School Supplies at MENARDS!

[All laugh, including Grandpa.]

VOICE OVER: In addition to our wonderful Hall o’ Cost Reduced School Supplies…

[Visual of kids enthusiastically choosing folders and pens, Mom and Dad looking up prices happily, Grandpa trying to figure out how to unfold a Trapper Keeper]

VOICE OVER: …Menards has everything you need to revitalize your kitchen…

[family examining various faucets with happy interest. Kids excited, Mom enchanted, Dad and Grandpa impressed]

VOICE OVER: …your den…

[family examining various wood panelings on the wall. Kids excited, Mom pointing out her favorite to Grandpa, Dad knocking on paneling to test it, and pleased with the result]

VOICE OVER: …and even your bathroom!

[Grandpa on his knees, looking up at the showerhead, and sobbing uncontrollably. Kids laughing and pointing at him]

[Cut to Menards guy]

MENARDS GUY: At Menards!

[song: Saaave big money at Menards!]

I’ve observed that many states’ pronunciations reflect their shape. Consider the big and wide “Mon – tah – nah” to the tiny clipped hard consonant laden “Connecticut.” You can even do it to more complex shapes. Idaho starts narrow and then goes broad “Id-ahhooo.” Minnesota goes wide-narrow-wide “Miinn es ohtahhh.” I suppose this is one of those topics you need to be on a long car-ride to get into.

The one major tourist site that interested Laurel and me was Lewis and Clark’s cave. We were in great spirits when we got there. To get to the cave one must climb. High. Halfway up the mountain trail, we passed an old lady with her adult son, and it didn’t look like she was going to make it. She was clearly suffering, embarrassed that she was suffering, and frustrated and maybe a little pissed that she was suffering. We sat with the two of them a bit, but they clearly didn’t want us to wait for them.

Laurel says that it was her husband, not her son. Someday people will have a similar conversation about me and Laurel.

Up, up, up.

We passed the woman who would be our guide, as she was plodding up the path. Finally, we all arrived, including the suffering woman, and the exploration began.

First, the good news. This was a big-ass cave. As I noted before, I love being in caves. I love the air and the temperature and the way they look and the way they smell. So it was great to be on a full two-hour tour. Laurel pointed out that this tour, at times, actually gave you the feeling that you were spelunking, because some of the parts were quite narrow. One involved sliding on your butt down a low passage, for example. I also learned about two types of cave formations I didn’t know about before. So yeah, I recommend the Lewis and Clark caverns.

Now, the bad news. It was largely a dead cave, with most (but not all) of the formations dry and no longer growing. And it didn’t seem that its stewards respected it. All the other tours I’ve been on start with a “don’t touch anything – the oils in your fingers will stop the formations’ growth and they are very fragile” lecture. Not this one. In fact, some of the passages required you to grab on to the odd stalagmite for balance.

The cave showed the effects of this neglect. Many stalactites were broken, formations were polished shiny, etc. It just didn’t seem as pristine as the others. Granted, this one was discovered a very long time ago. It didn’t help that our guide wasn’t normally a guide – she was a ticket taker who decided to help out because of the Independence Day rush.

Some of her ‘typos’ were not serious, almost cute. “Lewis and Clark came here while returning from the East” Some were surprising. “Lewis and Clark were exploring the Louisiana Purchase, which was a large parcel of land purchased from… some other country.” But she also said weird things about topics I was interested in. For example, we saw a really groovy cluster of bats. She said there used to be thousands in the cave. And now? Now it is hard to know exactly, and it declines every year, but the number of bats in the cave is roughly in the range between “99 and 100”.

It’s hard to know if it was the tour guide or the tour. There were plenty of things like “this rock is shaped like a wolf” or “this rock is shaped like Santa” I like that stuff. But the other caves didn’t have to emphasize that stuff over the “this is popcorn crystal” “this is boxwork” material. In retrospect, the tour had plenty of that stuff too. So my head can be up my butt here. There was something in the attitude. Here it is – we saw an active formation with a water droplet, and a little boy wanted to touch it. “You mustn’t,” said the guide. “Why not? Is it poop?” asked the boy to the amusement of all. She said some bogus joke-reason in return. Why couldn’t she have answered honestly? The crap about the oils?

I know I’m coming off as a prig. I’m not. Honest. Any stick up my ass would immediately be dissolved by partially digested Bloody Marys. But as long as I’m whining, I’ll tell you that I also didn’t like the guy who snuck off to take flash pictures of the bats after our guide specifically told us not to, and the ass who made awful puns, and the wussy ladies who were always whining and bat-phobic.

I love bats.

6 PM: Okay, I’m at Frontier Pies Restaurant and Bakery. We haven’t had a meal that requires washing dishes for two days, due to campsite regulations. We ordered BEEF. We are in MONTANA! IT IS WHAT’S FOR DINNER!

[later] The restaurant boasted 28 varieties of pie. I ate so much dinner that if I had dessert I would have been 28 varieties of sick.

It was getting late, and we needed to get a campsite. The AAA directions were misleading, as in wrong. Finally we saw a sign to the site we were looking for: Pine Creek with an arrow. We turned in that direction. The road narrowed and became very winding. As we crawled up the mountain, I realized that there was no way we would find a campground at the end of it. After forever we were at a spot that was pretty damn close to paradise, and there was our campground. No spots left. Well, one spot had not been taken, probably because it was too small. It was certainly too small for our old tent, but not for our new one! We got the spot and a great night’s sleep.

Doug’s camping tip #6: Have faith.

One of my fondest memories of this trip was driving through Montana.

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