Atlantic to Pacific -- time out for Yellowstone

 ... once in a lifetime, a year-long journey

by Don Norris

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Welcome to the fifth chapter in our 1988 travelogue across the country, down the Pacific Coast, and finally, 9,000 miles later, back to Melrose. Our mode of travel was a motorhome, towing a new Honda Civic, which we used for 14,000 additional miles while poking into the four corners of this marvelous country. At this point in our ten-month journey, we have arrived in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming where we spent the better part of a week - definitely not enough time.

One thing about Yellowstone: It is huge. And it's a long way between most of the sights in and about the park. Furthermore, it is right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, so there are few straight roads but many enforced speed limits.

The park itself is a broad volcanic plateau surrounded by high mountains, including the Gallatin Range, the Washburn Range and the Absaroka Range, all with peaks of over 10,000 feet. There is the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, for which you want to bring your hiking boots. And the Tetons are just down the road.

Geysers abound, mostly in the west half of the park. Magic places like Norris geyser basin, Lower, Midway, Upper and West Thumb basins. And of course Old Faithful, which, these days, erupts every 75 minutes and spouts steam and hot water more than 150 feet into the air.

You'll probably never get to see all the geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone, they are so abundant. For example there is the Giantess that spews hot water and gases for up to four hours -- except it goes off only twice a year. You are more likely to catch the Giant geyser which fires off more frequently, but puts up a tower of boiling water some 200 feet high.

And the tallest geyser is Steamboat, which spouts irregularly but shoots water up a world record of 380 feet. But then, you may spend days, weeks, even months waiting for this display. Best to buy slides  at the museum, located near Fishing Bridge at the north end of Yellowstone Lake.  

The Grand Tetons are a southern neighbor to Yellowstone.

Most of the park is in northwestern Wyoming, although there are small pieces of it in neighboring Montana and Idaho. It is one of the most beautiful places you'll ever visit. We put a casual 500 miles on the Honda in five days of poking about. A hundred miles a day, out and back -- is a lot of driving. But at our age, we no longer are into long, rugged hikes.

Keep in mind the park has 350 miles of roads, 1200 miles of trails, and three major lakes for fishing and boating. It is home to grizzly bears, wolf, coyote, bison, elk and moose -- and lots of tourists in peak season. There is no public transportation within the park, so, ah, bring the car. During the summer there are bus tours, and even a snowcoach tour in winter. Reservations are appropriate.

There are some dozen campgrounds, some of which operate on reservations while others are a first come, first served basis. There are a like number of hotels and/or cabin complexes, all of which require reservations. The park entrance fee is $20 for a seven day pass -- for one private vehicle. Hotel and camping fees are another thing altogether. Call ahead: 307-344-7311.

And if you go, you are so close to Teton National Park, which is a must on any list. Route 191 heading south to Jackson Hole gives you a mind-boggling view of these absolutely spectacular granite peaks. It is almost like a film director set up the scenery for endless miles. And Jackson is a funky tourist town worth visiting.

We did all this touring and oogling in five nights and six days -- and we just scratched the surface. We were a week short of October, and winter was almost upon us. In September there is snow and ice and freezing temperatures, especially at night.

One morning at Norris Campground, we woke up at 3 a.m., and it was literally freezing in the motor home. Actually it was the noise of other nearby rigs that woke us as freezing campers fired up engines for heat. The next morning there were five inches of wet snow on Yellowstone, which made those burned areas even more grotesque in a stark black and white vista. It became a forest of black, branchless poles sitting upon a blanket brilliant-white snow, all covered with low, gray scudding clouds..

Dukakis For President ...

The world is full of tourists. Worse yet are tourists in a motorhome. We tourists have a stigma, no matter where we go. But surprisingly, most of the natives who have to put up with us (and benefit financially from our being there) are understanding. Many are kind and giving. But then again, many tourists are attitude deficient and deserve less than humble treatment.

We arrived in the West during the very hot Presidential race of 1988. And as a result, idle chat with strangers took a political bent.

Lorry and I  think of ourselves as Independents, but we tend to vote republican, as our parents did. But this time around, I had great faith in Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who had accomplished many good things during his four years leading the Commonwealth. And so both the Honda and the motorhome bore bumper stickers, flashing red, white and blue for the Democratic candidate Dukakis.

During those times that our rig was parked, wherever, people of the Northwest were drawn to our message, asking who this fellow Dukakis was, what did he represent. I told them that here is an honest politician. I told them that he is not above trading with the opposition (do we call it pork-barrel trading?) for the sake of the greater good.

The big problem was -- after the resounding national support of the first George Bush -- that on returning to the Commonwealth in 1989, we found the state destitute, its coffers empty, its future totally in question. My favorite candidate had spent his four years prepping the world for his candidacy, I felt. Our state was broke and in tough shape. So much for my ability to judge the politicians, and I apologize to all those northwesterners who listened to my tale of truth and honesty in politics. Obviously they know better than I.

Notes from the Scrapbook:

All during our ten months living in a motorhome, we kept a day-to-day diary, which averaged a meager hundred words per day. But then, that was before laptops, and I was writing by HAND. Penmanship. Which I have trouble reading today.

Monday, September 26, 1988: "... and we almost missed getting a campsite -- Norris Campground was full! in late September, yet." The following morning we drove our Honda north over Dunraven Pass (sic) on Mount Washburn, and the burned areas grew wider with firefighters still on duty. It wasn't over yet.

"At Norris Campground that evening, we met two hunters from Massachusetts, who told us how the big bull elk in the meadow had a harem of some 34 females -- and took six more away from a lesser bull., while we watched! The hunters paid $2500 for a guided 10-day elk hunt." Hmmmm.

Bang! Bang! Bang-bang-bang!!!

The next day we visited Old Faithful, after which the rains came. So we headed west to Idaho to the lonely tourist town of West Yellowstone, which was perfect for rainy day tourists. Endless tourist stores, one after another, here, in nowhere. Well, we got good buys, like a silver, cast Navajo chain for only $13 (orig was $36), and a beautiful big sandcast buckle, less than half price at $65. (We've been collecting Southwestern Indian silver-and-turquoise pieces for 30 years now).

The storm turned into something fierce with sleet, snow, rain, freezing temperatures -- so we spent the afternoon with a German couple -- tourists. We must have learned something, but I didn't write it down. Entertainment.

Details: Out here in the Rockies, we ate what we cooked. virtually no restaurants where we were, so we had to cook (heat-up) what we ate. It was a unique experience. Our collective weight remained about the same -- on beans and franks, tunafish for lunch.

As September ended, every night was below freezing. After all, we were sleeping above 7,000 feet. So we fired up the furnace (under my wife's bed), which kept the pipes (human and plastic) from freezing.

Yellowstone is fantastic, especially in September. You will hear coyotes howling, maybe wolves. Buffalo may enter your campground, and herds of elk will fascinate you. Beautiful landscapes go on forever, and the brilliance of the fall cottonwoods will amaze you. It is a glorious place to be.

Next month, we move on to lots more beautiful places -- like remote little towns like Boseman and Butte, Montana -- a town that was dependent on one huge hole in the ground, a mine, until it shut down and left the people penniless. Like Wallace in Idaho, and Spokane in a wondrous desert, trapped between the Rockies and the Sierra coastal range.

The yellow line represents our wandering route, while each red dot is where we stayed, at least one overnight -- sometimes as much as two months.

Your comments will be appreciated.

Don Norris at or at

Atlantic to Pacific, Part 1
Atlantic to Pacific, Part 2
Atlantic to Pacific, Part 3
Atlantic to Pacific, Part 4

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