When Wyoming folks “get out there,” they tend to avoid the tourist-saturated national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and head for such local gems as the Medicine Bow Range, the Wind River Mountains, and the Big Horns. It’s funny how places that aren’t located inside national parks simply don’t interest tourists who zero in on particular destinations such as Old Faithful or the Grand Teton. The typical tourist-mind is ignorant of the out-of-the-way spots, and would have no interest in seeing them anyway, so they are little visited.
Recently, I took two day trips from my home in Cody, Wyoming, three days apart. The first was west to Yellowstone National Park, and the second was east to the Big Horn Mountains. The differences between the two trips were instructive concerning American travel attitudes.
My Yellowstone day started quietly enough. I entered the Park’s Northeast Entrance near Cooke City, Montana, which is eighty miles northwest of Cody. There were intermittent rain showers that morning, and when I rolled into the Lamar Valley on the Park’s Northern Range it was as green as Ireland. As the weather temporarily cleared I parked the car in a turnoff and took a hike along the snowmelt-swollen Lamar River. The river was a roily brown and the lush grass of its banks speckled with standing straight powder blue lupine, and golden arrowleaf balsamroot bending to the returning drizzle. On the far side of the valley in front of me herds of bison and elk dotted the range. It was early, and — except for the occasional passing car — I had the vast Lamar to myself.
By the time I got over to Mammoth Hot Springs the tourist rush was on. Above the hotel visitors crowded the boardwalks on the huge, white travertine terraces like ants on a steaming ant hill. As I drove south through Gardner’s Hole a turnout along the Gardner River was full as tourists ogled a family of moose. Near the Sheepeater Cliff I encountered a “bear jam,” a line of twenty-odd cars in ursine gridlock. Cameras and binoculars in hand, tourists abandoned their vehicles and were seen stealthily moving amongst the trees like special forces commandos in sunglasses and khaki shorts. About halfway up the line of cars a man leaned out the window of a van and cursed and honked his horn in a family vacation version of agitated suburban road rage.
The object of all this activity was a small young grizzly bear that was obviously tolerant of the presence of humans. The bear calmly continued to feed as obsessed tourists skulked through the woods snapping photos. One man had his toddler daughter on his shoulders as he stood a mere thirty or forty feet from the bear. If Ursus Arctos Horribilus ever disappears from the Northern Rockies, it won’t be because of logging, mining or livestock grazing; it will be because of that man with his little girl on his shoulders. Most bears that become habituated to — and consequently lose their fear of — people, don’t have a bright future. Human-bear contacts almost certainly end tragically for the bear. The old saw is: “A fed bear is a dead bear.”
I took a trip to the Big Horns a few days after Yellowstone. If the national park was noteworthy for its glut of visitors, the high plateau of the Bighorn National Forest was noteworthy for its definite lack of them. The Big Horn Mountains are an “Island range.” Like mountain ranges in nearby Montana (the Elkhorns, Big Belts, Little Belts, Crazies, Snowies and Highwoods) and the South Dakota Black Hills, they are unique in that they are separate from the massive main chain of the Rockies to the west. They are 170 miles long and 50 miles wide, and surrounded by thousands of square miles of sagebrush prairie. Cloud Peak, their tallest summit at 13,187 feet, is the sixth highest mountain in Wyoming.
From both east and west there are a number of ways to enter the Big Horns, but coming over from Cody as I do, my favorite is Highway 14 up through Shell Canyon. Its red rock portal welcomes the traveler after he passes through the ranch community of Shell, Wyoming. The road climbs the canyon, a contrast of ochre and buff-striated rock (a geologist’s idea of heaven) and lime-green cottonwoods hugging Shell Creek. The switchback canyon rises 5,000 feet in twenty miles. Up and up past Steamboat Rock and Granite Creek as cool lodgepole forest replaces hot hardrock canyon, and finally cresting at Granite Pass (elevation: 9,033 feet).
Now the high plateau of the Big Horns presents itself in a top-of-the-world tableau of pointy lodgepoles, oases of aspen groves, and wildflowers. Breeze-waved blue lupine and red Indian paintbrush pepper lush green meadows crisscrossed by small chattering anonymous creeks. In the rattling aspen, I hike in sun-splintered shadows and listen to trilling meadowlarks compete with the windy racket of the trees. The air is almost autumn crisp, twenty degrees cooler than down in Shell. Down the hill from the aspen grove is the willow-sheathed North Fork of the Tongue River, snaking along until it starts its descent toward Sheridan on the east side of the mountains.
On the river I meet Jack Hicks. It turns out Jack is from Cody, but we have not previously met. He looks to be in his seventies, and he tells me he’s a retired power company lineman. We seem to have this part of the Big Horn Mountains to ourselves this bright summer afternoon. Jack appears to be a serious fly fisherman, and as we chat he lays down a dry fly upon the swift current of the clear Tongue River.
“Do you come up here often?” I asked.
“Whenever I can,” said Jack. “There’s too many damn tourists everywhere else”.
“I know what you mean,” I said.
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