Old Faithful isn’t as faithful as it is supposed to be, at least according to an impatient gentleman standing right behind me at Yellowstone National Park. The posted prediction time for its eruption on that sunny yet cool summer afternoon is 2:25, but the geyser seems in no hurry except for a few preliminary wisps of steam.
The beloved geyser, the rock star of Yellowstone, is running late, an eruption disruption, if you will, with O Impatient One clicking off the minutes like a drill sergeant. It’s 2:26, he says to anyone who would listen. Now 2:27. Erggh, he huffs at 2:28.
But then fickle and mischievous Mother Nature, who isn’t one to be hurried in the first place, rises to the challenge, and iconic Old Faithful, summoned by fires smoldering and sighing beneath Earth’s crust, forces thousands of gallons of silvery, scalding water and steam a couple of hundred feet skyward.
“Thar she blows!” O Impatient One roars, as if he is the first person who ever uttered those words in Old Faithful’s presence.
What he fails to realize is that, according to the National Park Service, the geyser’s eruptions are anywhere from about an hour to 110 minutes apart. In other words, it was right on time.
Anxious tourists aside, there are more geysers in the park than any other place in the world, a fact that helps make it as much a national treasure as it is a national park. Such is the allure of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone, with its melange of geysers, mountains, waterfalls and meadowed grasslands, is only the second stop on my journey to the national parks and monuments of the West.
Before Yellowstone, our tour group had visited Grand Tetons and then afterward sojourned across the breadth of Wyoming and across the Bighorns before ending the trip at Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore.
Choosing a trip of this magnitude requires some planning, and my husband and I shuffled the idea of driving from our home in Georgia, flying and then renting a car, or flying and taking a group bus tour.
If we drove to Jackson Hole, near Grand Teton National Park and our starting point for the sojourn, we would have to add three days on both ends of what we had planned to be a weeklong trip. With kitty cats at home and a garden in need of daily water, plus not having six extra days to spare, that wouldn’t do. A bus trip, it was, mainly so we wouldn’t have loads of driving.
After some research, we ultimately chose Tauck, a long-established tour bus operator, for the journey, although several offer pretty much the same itinerary. But it was film documentarian Ken Burns who finally helped us decide the road more taken.
Long a fan of Burns and his compadre Dayton Duncan, we had watched their documentary, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” on Georgia Public Television. It is impressive for the sheer information it provides. Then we learned that Burns and Duncan produced more than a hundred original narratives for Tauck that are shown on the bus trips en route to each of the national parks where Tauck travels.
We were sold on the idea, boosted by stays at historic lodging and having all the details of meals, luggage and tips taken care of. Plus we wouldn’t have to worry about moments of sleepiness brought on by long stretches of open highway. All we had to do was kick back and enjoy the scenery.
With a tip of the hat to Burns and Duncan, we set out on an eight-day journey to see the sights of the American West, kickstarted by a scenic 10-mile float trip down the Snake River and through Grand Tetons National Park. Our group of 50 is chiseled down to 10 per raft for plenty of elbow room for taking photos.
“Serenity is probably what people come here for most,” says our guide, Mike O’Neil, as he paddles past great stands of Engelmann’s spruce and lodgepole pines. “The only traffic jam here on the Snake River might be fallen trees.”
There are no rapids on this part of the Snake, even though the river is fast-flowing from snowmelt. We peer everywhere for the legendary beasts of the West, the great bear and bison, that we wrongly assume would be prevalent in the wilds on the river’s edge but they are scarce on this chilly day.
“The best way to see wildlife here is to just stop looking for it,” Mike instructs. “That’s when it shows up.”
Alas, Mike’s reverse psychology doesn’t work, as we see only birdlife, including pelicans, swans and a pair of magnificent sandhill cranes. But with the jagged, snow-tipped Grand Tetons as a backdrop for scenery, it doesn’t seem to matter that wildlife remains hidden from our view.
Two days later we leave Grand Teton behind, the bus motoring northward to Yellowstone and passing through forests and alongside the bluest of lakes that reflect the sun like scads of sapphires.
By then we had gotten to know our tour director, Murray Rose, an affable and exceptionally knowledgeable gentleman who has led hundreds of trips for Tauck.
Murray knows all the best stops for photo-ops, including an unscheduled one for a “bear jam” when a single big, black bear is sighted in the woods along the highway. Once the bear is sighted, seemingly a hundred cars magically show up to see the ursine wonder, creating a traffic jam in the Wyoming wilderness.
In Yellowstone, we see plenty of bison, with Murray explaining that while the terms buffalo and bison are used interchangeably, the U.S. really has no buffalo at all except in zoos.
“Buffalo are found in places like Africa, like the Cape buffalo,” he explains. “The United States has only bison. Once this was an entire land blackened by the shaggy beasts.”
As we pass several herds of bison grazing the sweet grass of Yellowstone, Murray says that upwards of 60 million of them once roamed the Great Plains. The “shaggy beasts” were hunted for fur and meat down to fewer than a thousand before steps were taken to preserve and protect them before they disappeared forever.
Several times on our journey Murray points out that 2016 was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the national parks system. While our jaunt is somewhat crowded in places such as Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, he says that it isn’t anything at all as compared to last year when all national parks saw record visitation. That number, according to the National Park Service, is an incredible 330 million.
After two days in Yellowstone, the bus leaves through the east gate toward Cody, where we make a lunch stop combined with a visit to Buffalo Bill Historical Center. In between we drive through Shoshone National Forest, a 5 million acre conclave of bubbling creeks, rainbow fields of wildflowers filled with the likes of penstemon and phlox, and deeply verdant forests of juniper and cottonwood.
Our overnight stay in Cody is at the Holiday Inn, where for the first time since we began our trip we had access to television and uninterrupted internet service, two things not found at the historic lodges of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons.
As Ken and Dayton — by then we had seen enough narratives to call the documentarians by their first names — serenade us with snippets of national park knowledge, the bus buzzes toward Wyoming’s behemoth Bighorns, in the far distance rising like ghostly apparitions from the morning mist. Here and there we spot coyote, pronghorn elk and mule deer. At several restaurants on the trip, elk and bison are on the menu, but I seriously cannot eat what I’ve just been photographing for its beauty.
“Every mountain range on the tour except for the Black Hills are part of the Rockies,” Murray explains as we climb to more than 9,000 heart-stopping feet in the Bighorns, passing even more elk and deer. “It’s a vast land, an impressive land.”
Underneath a cerulean sky brindled with wispy clouds, we spot a mama moose with her calf, which Murray calls a “mamoose,” and then he directs us to search for bighorn sheep among the dizzying heights and sheer cliffs of their namesake Bighorns. On this day, though, they remain elusive and we see none.
Coming from out of the Bighorns, it is crazy how the land opens up into the Great Plains. What seems a billion square miles of open land and sky look 10 times bigger than that, at least to me, a true-blue piney woods flatlander from Georgia.
Our lunch stop of brisket and biscuits is smack in the middle of nowhere at the windswept TA Ranch. The sense of isolation here is magnificent at this ranch in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming’s hinterlands. After horseback and wagon riding and quite a show by renowned horse whisperer Marchel Kelley, we overnight at the equally remote Ucross Ranch near Clearmont.
The grand finale of the trip is a stop at the work-in-progress Crazy Horse Monument and then Mount Rushmore, both carved from the mountains of the ancient Black Hills of South Dakota. Both are impressive manmade works of art, certainly, and worth checking off a bucket list, but I felt myself longing for the backwoods of the Bighorns, for whose beauty I was hopelessly smitten.
The tapestry that is the American West, its national parks and monuments coupled with their pure vastness, proves a humbling reminder that nature’s forces are much bigger than we will ever be.