August 2. “Stunning” was what Randy came up with when he and I were searching for one word that encapsulates the awe and beauty of Yellowstone. Melanie and I had never been to Yellowstone and Randy and Chris were eager to share with us the magical realism of this natural wonderland. Ah! It takes little imagination to figure out why they chose to retire here on this southeast corner of Idaho, a stone’s throw from Jackson, Wyoming. On Wednesday morning, we jumped into the jeep and headed off on a three-hour journey. We sped merrily along curving hills enveloped by quilted patches of pastel yellow fields of hay and potatoes. Neatly ordered bales of hay lined the fields, the work no doubt of hearty and rugged farmers. The effect of these blended yellow hues was like an Impressionistic canvas. The landscape of this beautiful country naturally attracts people who love the outdoors. Bicyclists, for example, are everywhere — on the plains speeding easily along; in the mountains, some struggling uphill, others racing downhill, bike enthusiasts, all of whom enjoy the camaraderie of the sport and who, I imagine, get high on the euphoria of being mentally and physically fit.
Deep within Yellowstone, emerge hordes of tourists, each one like us, seeking some splendor of nature’s beauty. Global languages abound – French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, German, unidentifiable Slavic languages, and British accented English. The world has come to this territory, bigger than Rhode Island, to gape in awe, like us. The intended or accidental effect of this tranquil and serene beauty is nourishment for the soul. Sitting among the crowd of strangers, waiting anxiously for the eruption of Old Faithful, the geyser, so nicknamed because of its faithful hourly gushing, was akin to sitting in a cathedral, except instead of being ensconced in the spiritual warmth of architectural icons and stained glass windows, we were enveloped by nature’s splendor. And Old Faithful did not disappoint! At the expected moment, a small gush of bubbling steam slowly ascended followed by increasingly massive eruptions that ascended skyward for dozens of feet. Quite a spectacle to behold! Other special moments included watching the cascading waterfall of Grand Canyon. At an elevation of over six thousand feet we stood and watched the cascading waters flow with a mighty force between the fissures of yellowed rock. The thunderous crashing water coupled with the whistling wind of the trees made a symphony of sounds. And for those fascinated with chemical reactions, the visit to the hot springs and mud pots with its oozing colors of violet, orange, black, yellow, blue and pink did not disappoint. Though the strong stench of sulphur encouraged a brisk pass through, everyone lingered, admiring the myriad colors of nature’s palette that this siliceous sinter – whitish rock– created.
Nestled among the forest of pine trees are rivulets, streams, lakes and rivers — like the Snake and Madison — that meander for long distances throughout Yellowstone. We had a picnic lunch on the skirts of the Gibbon River. Sitting on fallen logs, we enjoyed the melodic flow of clear water over beds of rock. Later in the evening we dined at the Old Faithful Lodge built during the 1920s as a haven for the wealthy. The architecture of this massive inn built with logs is fascinating. On Randy and Chris’ bucket list is a dinner and overnight at each of the country’s fourteen grand lodges. After visiting Yellowstone and the Tetons, I am tempted to add the same to my happiness file.
Our day could not have ended more perfectly with the herds of bison roaming the plains. We stopped by the side of the road as they ran freely. Their lithe gait seemed at odds with their huge bulk. We saw mothers with their young. Others were at play. And as we continued our journey, we saw bison slowly crossing the highway oblivious to the traffic jam and gazing tourists. A ranger standing in the middle of the highway was carefully observing the scene, assuring no contact between beast and human. As our car passed, we were able to get within close proximity to those lounging along the edge of the road.
August 3. After a slow start to the morning, we explored the Tetons more intimately. The Tetons are beautiful, majestic mountains formed by two seismic plates rubbing against each other millions of years ago, one bolting upright to create eastern vertical face of the Tetons; the other, jutting downward to create a string of lakes and the valley floor on the eastern side. French trappers gave it its name because the three peaks resembled teats. The eastern side is more dramatic with its towering appearance that shoots up directly from the lake; the western side has a softer, more sensual appeal with its sloping hills. Either view stimulates the imagination. Perhaps the most memorable part of our visit to the Tetons was the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, formerly a vacation retreat for the Rockefellers. On the site is a LEED platinum certified educational center and museum where visitors can learn more about the park’s wildlife and natural habitat. Unique to this center are the meditative rooms where we sat quietly listening to nature’s music — the whistling winds, the rustling of leaves, thunderstorms, the chirruping of birds, cascading waters, or the vocalization of four-legged creatures like Elk or the Grizzly Bear. The experience was spiritually uplifting. There were also educationally artistic videos to watch. On the walls were stanzas of a poem by Terry Tempest Williams. One stanza that particularly appealed to me was “Nature quiets the mind/by engaging with an intelligence larger than our own.” We lunched later in the day en plein air at the Signal Mountain Lodge in full view of the Tetons.
After lunch we visited a quaint little Episcopal Chapel of the Transfiguration whose small window in the sanctuary framed the Tetons. Later in the evening, on our way home, we could not resist stopping to watch the sunset over Mount Moran, mirrored in the lake below.
On Friday, our last day in the Tetons, we relaxed in the morning, picked weeds in the garden with Chris while Randy watered his beautiful wildflower gardens. In the afternoon, we visited downtown Victor for Huckleberry shakes, a local cultural treat that cannot be missed. And to round out the day, Randy and Chris invited us to the town’s weekly winetasting at Alpine Wine and Bistro in Driggs, a neighboring town. The proprietor, a friend of theirs who lives just up the slope above them, was expecting us. Since Randy had alerted him that we were former French professors, he was eager to learn the proper French pronunciation of the five featured French wines. Each of the wines was quite good, offering different sensations to the palate; the least favorite was the Sauvignon Blanc. Melanie and I have found no equal to New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc. Entertainment was provided by a father-daughter duo; he played the keyboards and the harmonica and she sang with a mellifluous tone. I would love to hear Jeff Jones, who plays a really soulful harmonica, and this fellow in a harmonica duet. The ambience, and perhaps the wine, made our feet light as Melanie and I danced a rumba, a tango, a bolero, and a swing. Though we felt we were a bit rusty, we received several compliments. Our teacher, Jan, at Dan O’Day Dance Club, would have smiled gleefully. In spite of the temptation to dance the night away, we didn’t linger and went home early; a thirteen-hour drive to Portland awaited us in the morning.
Instead of taking Interstate 84, presumably a quicker route to Portland, we opted to take the scenic drive along Route 20 through the Snake River Plains and eventually to Craters of the Moon, an area of dark craters and cold lava from eruptions that occurred nearly two thousand years ago. The blackened, scorched earth was a stark contrast to the rich vegetation of the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Once past the Craters, the topography remained dry and desolate until we reached the Columbia River on our approach to Portland where once again we were feted with the sight of deep dark green trees.