Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Yellowstone, Cody and the 4th July

[click an image for a bigger picture]

When we started planning this trip, one of the places we really wanted to get to was Yellowstone Park. The further our planning progressed, the reality hit that it would be too far for us to travel that far across America. Then one rainy day in March we got our little red van (who now has his own Facebook page by the way) and suddenly the impossible became just highly improbable.

So it was then that we headed east from Idaho Falls (once again bathed in 100+ sunshine). We knew it would be a good day when we filled up with the cheapest petrol we’d seen so far: $2.60 per gallon (which I think makes it 45p per litre)! On to the motorway… sorry freeway and we were definitely in ‘dogs in pick-ups’ territory… walking around the back of an open pick-up with tongues flailing in the air at 70mph.
The journey was a long hot one but we were kind of used to it by now and we’d even invested in a foil sun-screen which kept things much cooler but did make it more hazardous to drive. The other thing we had become accustomed to was roadworks… they’re everywhere. A lot of the roads here are in a really bad way and I wonder if everyone started all the roadworks they could when the financial crisis hit so that they would have to be completed instead of scrapped. After waiting in one such set of roadworks on this oh so very hot day I have new found respect for UK road-planning (or maybe just a new found disrespect for American planning).

Anyway, we trundled along dusty prairies - which were largely empty apart from the occasional enormous farm house or ranch thrown in – and started winding our way uphill around tree-lined hairpin bends. Things became greener and cooler. Before too long we were at West Yellowstone: a mixture of old, new, shabby, neat… and souvenir stores. A quick stop off at the visitors centre was enough to tell us that we should have booked a camping space inside the park six months ago;
we eventually found a primitive but pretty one five miles from where we had just come. Bears had been sighted in the camp the previous week and we had to store all our food in bear-proof cages – how exciting!

We talked with the Park Ranger (our first real Ranger!) who suggested that as soon as we find a site we should get down to the Grand Geyser; not as well known as old faithful but much more impressive. On the way we saw our first thermal spring; the water was so blue and perfect bath-water temperature. Unlike ‘old faithful’ the Grand is also more ‘unreliable’ it only erupts approximately every ten hours and you can sometimes wait for hours with nothing happening. Thankfully we took a van full of supplies (crisps and water)… we did wait for hours –slowly being joined by more and more people on our semi-circle of benches (many with the attention span of a distracted gnat came, sat and went again) - and luckily something did happen; slowly the base filled, then overflowed with slightly stinky, sulphurous water.
Bubbles started to form like a slowly boiling kettle and the geyser teased with little ‘boilettes’ every five minutes, getting a little bigger each time. Then it erupted big time! The force of water was amazing as was the height it reached. People who’d stopped on the nearby roadside got a car-full of foul smelling vapour… we smiled smugly.
By the time it finished we were well into evening time and the dark clouds of a massive storm were heading our way, as we twisted and turned driving blindly through the relentless rain, I was sure that we passed Hagrid (from Harry Potter)but Katy pointed out we nearly just hit a Bison!! So we headed back to our camp; day one in Yellowstone over.

The following day was our first chance to have a real look at the place. I always thought that the landscapes in Walt Disney cartoons were too idealistic, now I realize that the animators just came to Yellowstone and painted what they saw. The lush green valleys, miles of pine trees and majestic cliffs, valleys and canyons are all here. Unfortunately, so too are people… and they keep taking our camping spaces! It became apparent that once again we would not be able to get a space inside the park; we also had to think about where we wanted to be for the 4th July celebrations so we ended up cutting straight across the park and headed out toward Cody (home of ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody); very frustrating when it’s the park you’ve come to see! Even in Cody things were pretty packed but we found a spot on the edge of the town and set up home.

Cody is the furthest east we’d been and though still not in the middle of the states it was very much cowboy country. So what else was there to do in cowboy country but go see our first ever rodeo?
We got to the stadium and I’ve never seen so many cowboy hats and boots being worn without irony! I was even too sheepish to wear mine in case they laughed me out of town or thought that I was taking the piss (did I mention how many were carrying guns?)! Once again though, everybody was great and found our accent to be ‘just the cutest’… whatever, just don’t shoot.

Come the evening and we rolled up like the nerdy new kid on his first day at school… poor Jezza – bless him, everyone else had decided to bring their ENORMOUS 4x4 pick-up thing… I think we managed to drive underneath one of them.
Anyway, on the way to the stands, it was like the US equivalent of the Three-Counties or Royal Welsh Shows; a guy lassoing (?) children or anything that stood still long enough
and you could get your picture taken whilst sitting on a prize bull (for $10). Instead we used our $10 to purchase beer and headed for our seats.

Let me tell you they take it all pretty seriously. The place was packed and everyone around us knew all the riders. There was a fair bit of pageantry first including a National Anthem sung by Pattie (of whom more later) and a ‘ride-by’ by the town’s beauty-queen (whom our neighbour on the benches informed us is “the dumbest thing ever to breathe air”). Then down to the rodeo proper. I’d seen it on TV a few times but in real-life, it was surprisingly ferocious and over in a few seconds (isn’t that always the way?). Obviously it’s their job but its still amazing that everyone we watched ‘walked’ off under their own steam (limping to various degrees) and that was just the bucking broncos… the bull riding was even more spectacular.
Then they started jumping off galloping horses to grab hold of running calves and wrestle them to the ground then tie them up! Sounds cruel but the calves seem to know whats going on and happily trot away when released. And the lassoing skill of the cowboys was genuinely impressive. Surprise of the evening? A specialist lasso exhibition by a guy from South London (!

Following day was a bit of a day off. The town was building up to 4th July celebrations for the next couple of days and to give you some idea of the kind of place this is, people had already started putting their camp-chairs out by the side of the road… TWO DAYS EARLY!! And they were secured to anything – just left on the pavement – I can’t think of anywhere in the UK you could do that! For a moment I had visions of my new UK Camp-Chair-Import business but thought better of it. Instead we wandered around the park and browsed the stall selling various bits of tat; then we found some dappled shade on the grass and listened to some live bands playing.
These were shortly followed by Pattie (from the rodeo) who proceeded to croon for what felt like eternity occasionally interjecting with a witty comment. I slept.

We haven’t got any photos from 3rd July, so I guess nothing too memorable happened! We were up good and early for the 4th. Headed into town to find said chairs now occupied by flag-wavers.
We thought it would be nice to grab a coffee to watch the parade with. I queued… and queued… and queued (remember, this was for a coffee and a hot-water) 40 minutes later, Katy came in and took over so that I might see at least some of the parade!
The poor people behind the counter were absolutely run off their feet. Anyway, we were eventually served and watched the remains of the parade together and what a parade…
the people watching was magnificent (both paraders and spectators) - the whole thing was about as American as it gets.
Afterward we headed back to the park to find the same tat for sale and Pattie back on the mic with the same spiel as before!
Whilst we sat, we waded through a massive bag of kettle corn and I experienced my first ever corn-dog… and quite possibly my last.

Wandering back through town we decided to get a quick beer in Irma’s (a ye olde pub named after buffalo bill’s daughter). The place was packed but we got there just in time to watch a gun-fight (re-enactment luckily). This is possibly the worst acting we’ve ever witnessed since Crossroads finished (ask your mum).
And like Crossroads, even the walls shook when they closed the doors. To add to the surrealism, just after the show finished, a guy comes trotting down the street on his horse, ties it to a tree and goes inside for a beer!

Later that night we headed across town to watch the firework display – hyped-up to be the 2nd best in the state. For some strange reason the ideal vantage point was the delivery area in the Wal-mart car-park so we climbed up the bales of recycled cardboard and plastic and settled-in.
They were good but for those of you who have been to Ally-Pally, don’t bother making the trip especially to see Cody’s fireworks because you’ll be disappointed!

So that was our first 4th of July in America. We had a great time and met some lovely people but we still had the whole of Yellowstone to explore so, take a deep breath… we’re going back in!


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