We woke up early in Three Fork. Or at least Phil’s mom knocked on the door early to say that she and his dad would be going over to the hotel office for breakfast, and then returned an hour later to knock again and finally get us out of bed. (We’re not morning people when we don’t have to be).
At breakfast, there were either neighborhood locals or hotel guests seated around the brown formica dining table eating breakfast pastries with the owners. I was browsing book titles on the shelves behind us — dusty, dated things like how operate Windows ’97 — which were for sale. One of the guests at the table talked about how he wouldn’t try certain foods, the kind that someone with a drawl would pronounce slowly and phonetically to emphasize that it was too foreign and therefore, too strange for the senses. Cooz-cooz-s.
We were about an hour down the road when we stopped at a gas station and Phil’s mom realized that she’d forgotten her purse at the hotel. A realization made, ironically, just after Phil’s dad had proudly noted that we were making good time en route to Yellowstone.
It was mid-August by this point in my West Coast trip and on this particular day in Montana, it was freezing. We even saw sleet when we were in Yellowstone. There was some kind of freebie at the park, either for weekend, or the month, I’m not sure. But it meant getting to see Yellowstone without having to pay the admission fee. And lots of people too advantage of it, and everywhere we went, we really had to contend with traffic. Cars and trucks with campers lined up all along the roadways. At one point, some buffalo had wandered into view and the parking lot was packed with slow moving cars attempting to take advantage of the photo opportunity (this was the first time I’d ever seen a buffalo in person, although I did once have a bison burger… so maybe that still counts as seeing one in person). The park rangers had stopped admitting cars into the lot as we were leaving, saying that they first needed to wait till a few more people left and made space for newcomers.
“You ever been to Wyoming?” Phil’s dad called to me in the backseat. I hadn’t, and we were just over the border in some parts while visiting the park. We hadn’t seen much wildlife that I remember. There was a bald eagle perched on a tree that drew a lot of attention near the entrance. And of course, deer. We may have seen a moose, too. But there are plenty of other things to see aside from wildlife. The stink pots covered a lot of ground. It’s weird to be in such a luscious environment and see so many parts of the ground dried to a sickly colored gray patterned in deep cracks. The soupy clay around these areas had sometimes given way to steamy pools of clear blue water that looked almost crystalized on the inside. The red and gray much bubbled from the heat underneath the surface and released steam clouds. It’s a remarkable thing to see. But not smell. The sulfuric odor is so intense at some points, it could make you throw up. Phil hated getting too close to some of these things.
This ain’t the desert. This is Yellowstone!
Mother Nature’s Hot Tub.
We were witness to some stellar parenting when a father looking over one of the boiling springs knelt down and reached his hand out over the water, letting out a little cry of pain and looking oddly shocked that it was hot to the touch as he did, despite warning signs posted along the partial wooden fences that encircled the springs telling people not to watch their step and not get too close to the springs. The father, who was with his young son, clearly taught him a valuable less: don’t trust a warning sign unless you can verify the possible danger for yourself.
After lunch, we went to see Old Faithful which has been faithfully erupting gallons of water from the ground on the hour for many, many years. This was a popular attraction at Yellowstone and people crowded together on the path that circled around the geyser at a safe distance. For a good five minutes water and steam belch from the Earth before disappearing entirely, to return at some later scheduled time, entertaining a new batch of people.
Down in front!
When we left, we had to go back to Three Fork to pick up Phil’s mom’s purse. Luckily, the owner of the Broken Spur was holding it for her. In a few hours after turning around once again, we’d stop for dinner and then head to Betty Anne’s house. She owned the lake house on Flathead Lake where we’d be staying later in the week. Prior to that, we would be visiting her at her home just outside Missoula. It was late by the time we arrived and pitch black out once we got off the highway. With poorly marked roads (this was no place to drive in the winter), we found her house by looking for a sort of beacon — the flashing light attached to her garage that was intended as a signal for fireman, should they ever need to find the house.
The view from Betty Anne’s backyard (early morning).
Betty Anne was a widower and probably in her 70s. Phil’s mom and dad aren’t far from her when they vacation in Arizona in the winters, something that seems popular for the people of Small Town Big Sky Country. Betty Anne and her husband had probably about seven or eight children, boys and girls. Every one had an individual photo hanging above the sliding glass door in the dining room, some with smaller photo insets that either pictured them with their present families or children, or were simply updates of what they looked like. Her sons were good looking young men who seemed to have successfully outgrown the gawkiness of their pre-teen photos.
We ate creme brulee (it was Betty Anne’s first attempt at making it) while the adults reminisced. Betty Anne wasn’t a country bumpkin. She had just returned from a month-long stay in Germany where her grandson, a marine, was stationed. She seemed to be a frequent world traveller, and many of the decorations in her living room and family room seemed to come from some European or African country she’d visited.
“Do you kids want to go in the hot tub?” she asked us, as though she suspected we were bored, not having much stake in the conversation at hand about so-and-so taking ill. It was not only quite late out, it was also less than 50 degrees, which I suppose could be construed as a good reason to throw on bathing suits, grab a six pack, and go sit in the hot tub. So we did. We relished the privacy, save that certain fear of large, aggressive wildlife suddenly showing up out of nowhere, something that doesn’t seem entirely far fetched when you’re outdoors in the mountains. And us, with conflicting advice from the park rangers at Yellowstone for how to deal with bears when you encounter them. (Outrun the fatty!)
Phil and I were staying in what I suspected was at one time, a bedroom shared by Betty Anne’s daughters. It looked large enough to comfortably hold three beds (ala the Brady Bunch). It had a pitched roof and lots of antique furniture, as well as some creepy posters and Victorian dolls on my side of the room. (Mr. Marbles?!)
Tomorrow, we would borrow some fishing poles. We were going on a fishing trip!