Our Trip To Yellowstone, 1999

by Michelle Erica Green

We started out with two gorgeous days in Chicago and one in Oak Park where our good friends from college have a lovely Prairie School house a few blocks from the Frank Lloyd Wright sites, which we barely got to see. The city is so different being there with kids...we had to do the Sears Tower, and no architecture-hunting. But it was lovely weather -- rained the night we got there so it wasn't too hot and the lake was stellar, huge waves, we walked and walked along the Hyde Park shore around Promontory Point which the boys put up with because the view was so new to them.

Deborah drove in from Indiana so I had a grownup in whose room I could hide most of the night. The boys are nuts about her and she went through the Museum of Science and Industry with us, sort of to rehearse doing it with her daughter Emma next month. The next day we also went to the Lincoln Park Zoo and stuck our heads in the art museum during a too-brief sojourn downtown when I did at least get to walk by the building where I taught on DePaul's downtown campus. We had stuffed pizza at Giordano's the first night in Chicago and the best Thai food outside Thailand the second night at Siam--two curry dishes, one ginger dish, satay, Pad Thai, iced tea with condensed milk--then Greek for lunch the next day, so I would say that I ate outrageously well.

Then we drove through Iowa, stopping at a couple of fabulous fossil sites and the Herbert Hoover memorial so we could get the National Park stamp. Paul is obsessed with getting every park passport stamp we can, which means eight in Yellowstone alone, and four national historic trails which show up all over the west. Iowa was boring but the weather was beautiful; it occurred to me that numerous friends from KMAS would probably have been jealous that I was in the state from which HRH hails, which cracked me up given that I slept through as much of it as I could.

The next day we went through Omaha where I met Claire Gabriel, whom I have known for more than ten years but never met. I had written her a letter about her Trek novel before either of us was online and we corresponded--she was lovely though the meeting was chaotic with boys jumping all over the place at lunch. It was all too brief, in a McDonald's playland, which is where we decided would be the safest place to meet in case of iffy weather, and I think she is just as glad she did not have to spend too much time around my loud family! She was very nice, grandmotherly towards my kids, we talked mostly about how bad Trek has gotten and people on the RBLS. Then we went on to La Platte where there was a rodeo and carnival; the boys were less interested in the horses than the ferris wheel, but they had a great time. They also went in the outdoor pool even though it was in the low 60s. Nuts!

The highlight of Nebraska for me was Wal-Mart, where we stopped to find bath toys and I discovered stretch denim, which I had thought ceased to exist four years ago--I bought four pairs of jeans! We visited train yards which had an old steam engine and an old diesel for boys to climb on. We stopped in Thermopolis which has a terrific dinosaur museum. Then we drove through Wyoming (camping in Caspar) to get to Yellowstone. When we entered the park we stopped and threw snowballs at each other (this was a mistake as it meant that boys had wet shoes and were in rambunctious moods but what the hell, you only live once).

The next day we went through one of the big areas with geyser basins, the only one we did not see on our last trip: it was spectacular but the boys were insisting on trying to get themselves killed from the time we told them that the ground was not stable and the water was boiling, therefore very dangerous. Adam actually did step off the boardwalk, fortunately not in a danger zone, but I was stressed and Paul was busy trying to capture the perfect videotape moment. Then we went around the geyser basin near Old Faithful (which was more than ten minutes late, and the Castle--which we did ultimately get to see erupt--is running on a 22-hour schedule instead of its usual 11-hour clock). We also went swimming in the freezing Firehole River. We could not eat dinner at the campground where we intended because there was a black bear right there when we arrived, clearly visible through the car window! And we saw a grizzly the next morning in the hills. So we had to eat expensive Yellowstone restaurant food, but it was worth it. We also saw lots of buffalo and elk, but only one moose, and a female so no antlers. Well, the bears were worth the trade-off.

I loved the isolation but I also loved being able to get online while overlooking the lake and the mountains. Our room was on the first floor, facing the water; at ten o'clock at night but the sky wasn't dark yet. There was a huge mound of snow directly outside the window even though it was over 70 degrees during the day, at least by the geyser basin which I suppose is inherently warmer than Grant Village where we were staying near the south of the park. Our last day, we we went to Mammoth Hot Springs where Adam loved the prairie dogs but was completely uninterested in the actual springs. I think he is a bit too young for this trip, has meltdowns regularly when he needs a nap, but he is very cute when he gets excited about something. He had people around us in stitches talking about why they built the walkways and how hot the ground was. Not to mention the elk poop near the geysers. I can't tell buffalo poop from elk poop but my kids can.

The boys are still on a Star Wars kick and we learned that at Devil's Tower KOA they play Close Encounters of the Third Kind every night--not that the boys were interested in watching since we made a fire. Despite rotten bathrooms and lots of mosquitos, the campground had the one unparalleled virtue looming for thousands of feet outside the front window of our cabin, making all complaints quite insignificant. The Belle Fourche river ran a few feet behind the cabin out the back window. We got to the park around four after stopping in Bighorn National Forest for lunch. Before checking in at Devil's Tower campground we went to the park itself and walked the short route around the monument, which is not as pretty as the long route we took last time, but it a lot of fun for kids who think they are goats and like to climb boulders. Then we went to the campsite and made French toast for dinner.

I remember that the last time I was at Devil's Tower I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been, comparable only to the nearby Black Hills. Yellowstone is a vast, changing terrain as you explore it - the lake, the canyon, the geysers, the partially burnt forest - but there is no one feature which matches the spectacle of the one dead volcano and the woods around it. Because of the Bighorns, Devil's Tower is not visible until you're close enough to be awed by the hill and the nearby buttes. I'd forgotten the sheer size of the thing, especially how it looks standing among the boulders beneath it; there's a steep rise among the rocks and then the sheer cliff, which is really concave on the side exposed to sun most of the day. The other side (where people are often climbing, though not at the late hour when we got there yesterday) must be approached through a thick cover of trees, meaning you alternate between glaring sunlight and chilling shade, where occasional animals make appearances, mostly rodents and birds. Some of the climbing routes were closed to protect nesting ospreys. While driving in, one is met by prairie dogs, hundreds of them on both sides of the road squeaking at one another; when leaving, one sees herds of deer through the trees.

The KOA campground is at the very foot of the tower, its entrance a few yards from the entrance to the national park. All the cabins face the cliff, and most of the RVs have chosen sites which do so as well. The cabins all have swings on the front porch. After we ate Paul took us in search of ice. I stopped in the store to look at the kitsch and watched my kids play in the ice-cold bright blue pool with Devil's Tower looming in the background. Then I walked back to the campsite, maybe a half mile away, with the sun setting behind the huge hill. We made a fire to go with the dozens of other fires in this valley: I smelled like smoke all day since I did not use the grungy showers in the freezing air in the morning, but after three days of smelling like sulfur at Yellowstone that wasn't a big deal.

Our neighbors from the next cabin came over when they realized we had marshmallows, which they had forgotten; we made s'mores for our two boys and their two little girls while they griped about their 18-year-old who was hiding from them (considering that they were driving and sleeping 5 to a room, I can understand why!) Their daughters played really nicely with Daniel and Adam, everyone compared Beanie Babies, then they took turns locking one another out of the cabins. Daniel had a great time using the well and Adam almost burned himself on their grate, but all in all it was a nice evening. My computer was the envy of the nine-year-old, but I never turned it on. Venus and Mars were visible before anything else in the night sky, the Evening Star right by the tower and the red planet by the half-moon, but when the fires finally went out and the sky got dark enough, you could see millions of stars--it has literally been years since I have been that far outside a city on a clear night. Crickets singing, cows mooing nearby, some horse noises and some dogs. Temperature dropped into the high 40s. I slept like a rock.

Woke up in the morning and was dazzled again by the view. It was maybe 6:30 in the morning, the sky was already light though overcast; there were birds making a racket in the trees by the river. We drove out of the park towards Sundance, stopped at Mount Rushmore (not the part of the Black Hills I would have chosen to see but we figured we should take the kids there). Mostly what they remember of the mountain of presidents is a man with a five-scoop ice cream cone and being thrown off the boulders by a park ranger. I bought a cheap turquoise necklace in Wall Drug because I felt like I should buy something with my birthstone, and since I couldn't afford any of the gorgeous fetish necklaces, why not something smaller from the kitschiest spot in the US?

Then we drove to the Badlands, which are better seen driving east before encountering Devil's Tower and Yellowstone; they're interesting but just not awesome like the western parks. The boys were reasonably impressed with the fossils but much more excited that--unlike in Yellowstone, Devil's Tower, or Mount Rushmore--they could leave the path and climb on the rocks, which Daniel did fearlessly, even when I got vertigo. It was probably 85 but felt a lot hotter, desert weather. We didn't have time to see any of the Native American exhibits because certain boys were anxious to get to the hotel and go swimming, and were therefore rambunctious. We did manage to buy fudge in the little town near Mount Rushmore.

Really I don't think there are good words to describe the Black Hills. There is so much treacly travel literature that everything sounds insincere or cliched if you use words like "awe-inspiring" or "sublime." We stopped at a Lakota museum founded (ironically) by a Catholic church which started a missionary school for Indians that is still there; they have a lot of stuff on the parallels between the Paiute Messiah and Christ (though the Indian messiah predicted that in the new paradise, all the white settlers would be exterminated). They also had absolutely fabulous artwork, some of which I bought reproduced on postcards. Other than Wall Drug and the jeans from my Wal-Mart tour of America which my mother scorned at quite vocally on the phone, every souvenir I have bought on this trip for myself has been Native American-made: two pairs of tiny silver-and-turquoise earrings, two necklaces with different types of bear fetishes, a small piece of Sioux pottery, and postcards. Oh yeah, and a small piece of amber with flies stuck in it; ever since Jurassic Park I have wanted one of those, and this one was under $5.

Anyway, from the sublime to the ridiculous, we went from the Lakota Museum to the Mitchell Corn Palace, which is a pretentious building with spires decorated on the outside by--you guessed it--painted ears of corn. Inside they sell every corn souvenir imaginable (I mean of the pipe and food variety, not romantic mush). It was a nice place to have lunch however as there is a pretty park outside, and then we drove into Minnesota, which we passed through quickly en route to Madison.

Paul's parents, his grandmother, three of his aunts and uncles, one cousin and his wife, and his youngest brother and his wife all stayed in our hotel in close quarters so we could swim with them and stuff which was a lot of fun as we rarely get to see any of them. The rehearsal dinner started with wine and cheese at Shana's mother's house; I ate tons of cheese and nuts with mustard since Wisconsin's are stellar, and drank soda water with flavored syrups in it (first raspberry, then irish cream, then amaretto). Then we went out to dinner at a place with a huge stuffed bear and goat in the bar, plus the best salmon I have had in the Midwest. I came very close to ordering a steak but realized I was going to want dessert so should save room. Paul and I split both a bittersweet chocolate cake in Grand Marnier sauce and a caramel chocolate cream pie in vanilla cream sauce with raspberries. Adam, who kept running into the bar to see the bear, fell asleep in the car so I had a nice long talk with Brooke, Paul's youngest brother's wife. They are in Seattle and it sounds like David and Shana are talking about moving to the west coast within the next year.

Shana's family is very nice though many of the west coast relatives (her father's side of the family) were not there, and I know things are tense between her and her stepfather. Shana had insisted on bringing their dog from Rhode Island; it had a nervous breakdown and nipped people and had to be banished. Saturday before the wedding we went into Madison, had lunch at the Great Dane Brew Pub where David and Shana met, walked around Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Terrace, took pictures of the capitol, came back for ice cream. The wedding itself was mercifully short, in the bride's mother's garden, maybe 30 people; we sat at the end of the first row so Paul could give David the rings at the right moment, Adam sat on the ground and threw grass at my skirt and whined occasionally but never did anything loud enough to disrupt the service. Shana was wearing a long white sleeveless sheath dress; David was not even wearing a tie, nor were any of his siblings.

There was way too much Jesus stuff in the ceremony for me--I hate all that God created them male and female so everyone has to be a married heterosexual shit, and I especially hate wedding ceremonies which suggest that Christ is the only means to a true and lasting marriage. Considering that Shana is half-Jewish and insisted on having a photo of her Jewish father on a table by the altar, I was surprised she put up with it, and she looked rather tense during the three Cs of marriage speech (communication, committment, and Christ), but it was over quickly and everyone threw flower petals which were in her hair all night.

Then we took very informal photos and ate the first round of hors d'oeuvres, a variety of Wisconsin cheese and crackers. The reception was in a pair of tents in her mother's backyard with some spillover into the house and the garden: the boys spent much of the early part eating cheese, then trampling through the garden where they found a large bullfrog in the garden pond which also had a number of fake stone frogs so we didn't all come running at the first mention of frog. They also chased fireflies all evening and caught several. David and Shana made most of the food themselves, which was all vegetarian, sort of the equivalent of veggie dim sum--it was buffet style and little portions, but there were about twenty dishes to choose from, so we ended up absolutely stuffed! I don't even remember everything I ate but the best were the butternut squash rolls, the five-bean rolls, the garlic canapes, the chutney-stuffed strawberries, and the gazpacho-stuffed potatoes. Oh, and the cheese sticks and sushi (being vegetarian it contained no raw fish, though I had to peel the seaweed off anyway to make the rice part edible with soy sauce). Oh yeah, and hummus. Can you tell I ate too much? They had three layers to the cake--one poppy seed, one carrot, one angel food, all with incredibly rich white butter icing. And chocolate roses with little "David and Shana thank you"-type tags; I brought mine back to the hotel, I could not eat it as I was getting sick from being stuffed!

The music was a swing band which meant it took us youngish people awhile to get going; David and Shana begged us to dance with them on "It Had To Be You" since they have no formal dance training, and only the Anderson relatives showed up on the floor for most of the evening. Paul and I are worse dancers than either of his brothers or cousins but not quite as bad as his uncles. Eventually Daniel decided to dance while David and I were dancing, and within a couple of songs it had degenrated into David, Adam, Daniel, and the one other kid present sliding on the floor, while everyone else howled and took video. Then the band played the Charlie Brown theme music, and Paul's brother Jon and his wife Brooke got up and started imitating all the Peanuts dancing (you know how one of them throws his head from side to side and another one does this Frankenstein-like thing with his arms etc.) which just made more people get silly. David eventually went inside to put on a tie-dye shirt and shorts, he was sweating so hard. When we finally interrupted the boys' dancing, chasing fireflies and swatting mosquitos, running like madmen across the lawn, etc. to tell them it was time to leave, they both had sobbing meltdowns.

We had breakfast with the entire family for Grandma's birthday. The restaurant said we had to get there before 9 when the church groups descend--some brunch! I ordered pecan pancakes but could barely eat half of one of them after last night. And I had some bacon which was probably a mistake. Did I tell you I had African peanut stew yesterday for lunch at the Great Dane? I was vegetarian all day--it was awesome, pumpkin and squash and some weird spices and lots of nuts. Anyway, then we all went our ways. We have had annual Anderson family reunions for the past few years at weddings and I am really bummed we don't have a good excuse for one next year--maybe when we go to my cousin's wedding in L.A., we can get the Seattle contingent to drive down to see the SoCal contingent. Two of the aunts and uncles and Paul's grandmother flew in from the west coast, which was a lot more than Shana's relatives--her father died when she was quite young and most of his siblings and family blew this off, which sucks. And might explain why she felt no need to include Jewish family traditions considering that none of them showed up. Still, she seemed to have a good time, especially after a few glasses of fruit beer which they also made themselves. Too bad I don't drink beer, I hear it was great.

We stayed in Ohio on the very last leg of our trip, where I caught up on reports of DeForest Kelley's death and Ron Moore quitting Voyager. Came back to work, laundry, and reality for a few days before taking off again for the in-laws in Connecticut over July 4 weekend; we barely saw them this trip.