Follow the Yellowstone road
I screamed like a fool.
Veteran of scores of mountain views, I let out a shrill yelp, embarrassing myself, as I caught the first glimpse of the Teton Range from the Togwotee Pass, high in western Wyoming's Absaroka Range.
This awakened my wife, Sue, who thought I had spotted an antique mall.
"What's the matter?" she cried. Then she caught sight of the magnificent peaks, glittering with snow and granite, shining like the polished precious stones they are.
Two and one-half days of dodging 18-wheelers on I-80 and surviving rush hours in Denver and Albuquerque faded away, replaced by what John Muir called "nature's peace flowing into you."
If you close your eyes and think "mountain" you w ill probably come up with something very much like the Tetons, no foothills just craggy, snowy peaks leaping into the sky.
Writers have a word for that, "iconic." We Texans have a word for that too, "purty."
There are some places you just have to see at least once in your lifetime. Yellowstone is one of those.
I'd been twice but Sue had never been and we were determined to make that happen this year.
It's one of those things you can't describe, you just have to go there. Of course that makes w riting this ar ticle pretty hard.
The geysers, falls and canyons were awesome but I honestly hadn't counted on seeing so much wildlife in only two days inside a park which seems to have borrowed its traffic jams from Houston's Gulf Freeway.
Think of a Sherman tank with fur and a temper. That's a buffalo.
Then there was the bear, calmly eating the tops off flowers one afternoon as we returned from the park's aptly-named Mud Volcano.
The previous day, at Grand Teton National Park, we did the unthinkable. We turned our backs on the magnificent mountains and looked the other way. And there was an entire herd of elk grazing away in the Snake River Valley.
Elk got to be commonplace. We saw them near Jenny Lake, in the Madison River valley, in the Lower Yellowstone Falls parking lot and, later, going up to a Colorado mountain pass.
Of course every car in Yellowstone came to a screeching halt every time any animal was sighted.
One evening there was a traffic jam along the Madison River because everyone stopped to see a bald eagle nest in a tree. No eagles, just a nest.
Wonder what those people would think if they knew bald eagles built a nest in a reclaimed mining area at Alcoa's Rockdale Operations.
O f course we d id t he Old Faithful geyser thing—everybody does—and it turned out to be more memorable than we had anticipated.
Old Fait hf ul is so famous there's room for a thousand or so to sit on benches surrounding the world's most popular geyser and listen to kids scream and have people from New Jersey spill ice cream on you while waiting for an eruption.
Sue and I headed for the Upper Geyser Basin trails figuring we'd watch from far away.
After about 45 minutes we found a nice little bench, sat down and looked back at Old Faithful waiting for it to go off.
And waited, and waited.
We were joined on the bench by two other couples, one of whom seemed to be personally offended the famous geyser was standing them up. Maybe there was a television show they were missing.
Old Faithful eventually did go off, but it was Plume, our own personal unexpected little geyser, we'll remember forever.
Feel good story
Here's something that made me feel good. West Yellowstone, Montana, is a tourist town that exists solely due to its proximity to the park.
That's where we stayed, at a small place called the Alpine Motel, which is sort of shoehorned into a city block between a cafe and a Chinese restaurant.
It's run by Brian and Patty Watson. Brian, whom of course I'd never met, greeted me like we'd been bowling together every Thursday night for the past 10 years.
He gave us a gift bag, escorted us to our spotless room, showed us how to operate everything in it, told us what was good to eat and where, cautioned us to be through by 9 p.m. because "it's a small town," reeled off a list of services the motel provides and then invited us back to the lobby for coffee, tea and snacks.
Turns out they do.
The next day I went looking for ice to fill our ice chest. (Many motels limit you to a dinky bucket full and treat guests' ice chests like they're toxic waste.)
Patt y, who was cleaning a room, left it, returned with a huge container of ice, filled our ice chest for me, rearranged our drinks better than I'd packed them and asked if I needed any more help.
I looked at the tripadvisor. com website which ranks lodging based on reviews from consumers.
The tiny Alpine Motel is No. 1 among West Yellowstone's 36 motels, hotels and fancy upscale resorts.
Then they treat you like it.
We got up early our final morning in West Yellowstone and drove 690 miles—we logged 600 or more on 4 of 8 days—to Ouray, Colorado.
Ouray is in the San Juan Mountains. For the past five years I've written annually about our emotional connection with these mountains.
But I don't think either one of us were prepared for what happened as we headed south out of Montrose along US 550.
Familiar peaks and landmarks came into view. The road started to climb into the San Juans. Sue and I had not yet said a word but we looked at each other.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" I asked.
And in a way we can't explain, we were. Within the hour we were on the deck of our friend Gregg Pieper's hotel/restaurant enjoying the wonderful mountain air and swapping stories.
Some of which were actually true.
Greg g not on ly ow ns a nd operates the Western Hotel and Restaurant but also the legendary San Juan Scenic Jeep Tours which has set the standard for seeing Colorado's most marvelous region for more then 60 years.
We were hoping to go up Imogene Pass this year. It's one of the few remaining San Juan nail-biters we hadn't done with Gregg's crew and it's the highest, topping out at 13,114 feet.
One more time
We got there. But you know, what, after all these years I think I'm finally learning the journey is more important than the destination.
Gregg took us to see a multimedia presentation entitled "San Juan Odyssey."
But the line that haunts me from San Juan Odyssey is one of the last ones. I suspect Gregg thought of me in connection with this line because he knows how I feel about these mountains.
An elderly Ouray resident is dying and is asked, rhetorically I suppose, what he wants.
To which he replies, "I'd like to see Mount Abrams one more time."
I understand that.
Up a San Juan Hill
If you want to know what gives me a thrill,
Put me on a Jeep up a San Juan hill.
I've been on an ocean, smooth and sparkling as glass,
But it doesn't come close to Black Bear Pass.
London is fine and Paris is awesome,
I'll take the dew on a Columbine's blossom.
I've seen sunrise explode, fill a desert with light,
I'll still choose the stars in a Silverton night.
In cathedrals I've stood, felt blessed and alive,
Yet I'm called to cathedrals that need four-wheel drive.
For me, it's a part of God's personal plan,
The outside of a mountain for inside of a man.
This poem is ending, guess I've said my fill.
Put me on a jeep. Up a San Juan hill.—M.B, 2009