One could easily spend two weeks doing what we thought we could do in two days. Although the distance from Las Vegas to Yellowstone as the crow flies is not daunting, that distance is utterly irrelevant when one is not a crow. Everything takes us a little over twice as long as expected as we pilot our car and see the sights on the twisting roads that skirt the mountains of Utah, the southeastern corner of Idaho, and the west coast of Wyoming. The scenery is so breathtaking, the geological diversity so stunning, and the potential for delicious drive-in food so tempting that we end up arriving at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone at 1:00 in the morning the day after we were supposed to arrive. The last few hours of the drive had all the earmarks of the Bataan death march. I haven’t even seen Yellowstone in the daytime yet and I already sort of hate its guts.
The day started beautifully. We’re definitely trying to go with the flow on this trip, but having already – on day one – bookmarked three sites on our must-see list for either the return trip or some future trip, we decided to get moving early. Despite our “never get up before 9am” rule, we got up at 7:45am Mountain time (which was a lot like 6:45am for us) and started our day in the Capitol Reef National Park.
“Oh my heck!” as people kept saying in Utah. Capitol Reef is reminiscent of both Bryce Canyon and Zion, but it’s more diverse geologically and it features the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the crust of the earth created some 70 million years ago by violent seismic activity. Like all geologic features (with the exception, I suppose, of actually erupting volcanoes), the wrinkle and its surroundings look tranquil, majestic and unflappable as they bask in the morning sun.
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize these buttes and mountains; they’re covered with holes and dents and protrusions that conspire to create faces and bodies, like giant canvases of abstract art. They seem to me to be stretching in the recently risen sun, settling in for their day and only incidentally inspiring awe in wide-eyed humans. Capitol Reef’s mountains are cluttered (gorgeously) with shale and sandstone rubble that, while affixed and unmoving, appears to be cascading downward. The rocks balanced on the slopes are cantilevered as if they’ll continue their downward fall any minute – which they will, geologically speaking. And the shale, which breaks under pressure into flat sheets (think flints or chalkboards), has littered the landscape over the last few hundreds of thousands of years with what look like deep orange-red two-by-fours.
After we reluctantly leave Capitol Reef, we wend our way up to the Uinta National Forest and Mount Nebo. Here, we see a little of the dramatic ferrite-rich rock of southern Utah, but far more in the way of evergreens, aspens, cattle, and the gentle slopes characteristic of glacially created mountains, too high to have been carved smooth by rivers, but for the most part too low to sport the craggy peaks that crested even the glaciers. These mountains rest gently on the landscape, their rises and folds like the enormous paws of colossal animals in repose. As we switchback our way up to the Mt. Nebo overlook at about 9200 feet, the greenery keeps parting to offer dizzyingly sensational vistas of rock, forest, mountainside and, now, a few snow-streaked craggy peaks, too. Every time we get out of the car to gape or to read a historical or geological marker, the silence fills our ears with its soundless beauty and our hearts and souls with tranquility.
Everyday reality reasserts itself in the form of the nasty traffic jam that slows us up on our way out of Salt Lake City. After the adventuresome and thrilling drive on the unpaved road that shoots down the Santaquin Canyon from Nebo, during which we saw no one from 8500 feet down to 4500 feet (thankfully, given the narrow twistiness of the road), the traffic is not only unwelcome but bizarre too, like a category mistake.
It’s not as bad as it might be, though, since we have just had a late lunch at Hire’s Big H in Salt Lake City, a drive-in with an unusually delicious bacon cheeseburger (the bacon thickly cut, freshly cooked and crisp), a world-class grilled cheese sandwich, and the best chocolate malt I have ever had. (No vegetables so far today, unless you count the onions inside the onion rings, which I do not.) It turns out to be lucky that we eat more than we intended to, since this will prove to be our last food for the day.
The drive from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone quickly takes a turn for the worse. Our GPS, guide books and maps keep telling us things are 23 miles away, then reneging on those promises. Miles pile on miles and traffic is city-ish for too long on US 89 (the scenic route which is indeed that, although it can’t compare to Utah 12). There is one bizarre stretch of one-way road just north of Montpelier, Idaho, that is regulated by a stoplight with a sign that states the delay is 15 minutes and prohibits running the red light. Once the light turns green (finally), we and our accumulated companion cars simply have to trust in our fellow man not to run the red light at the other end and crash head-on into us as we traverse a narrow, unpaved gully littered with construction equipment. Apparently, Western-state drivers are either accustomed to this setup or less impatient than the drivers we’re used to – there is no trouble whatsoever.
As the miles stretch interminably – we really had no idea, it turns out, how BIG these Western states are – and Yellowstone begins to seem like a pipe dream, there are of course marvels to see. Coming up on Bear Lake from the south is jaw-droppingly beautiful. We sigh, exclaim and nearly drive the car off the road in our zeal to fill our eyes. The verdant high-altitude pastures and mountains all along the route are bucolic and serenely glorious. In our short time in Idaho, we see llamas calmly grazing on green fields in the apricot-colored sunlight.
But the miles between Jackson, Wyoming, and our actual hotel room in Yellowstone are appalling. The sun goes down around 10:30 and we soon feel as if we’ve spent our entire lives driving on a cramped two-lane road lined on both sides with tall trees and thick scrub, no one in front of us and no one behind. The moon is intermittently visible and, as it rises higher and higher, very picturesque, but it is of little comfort when every turn in the road leads only to more road and lights indicating civilization frustratingly refuse to appear. It’s also a bit frightening since every now and then the thick forest breaks and we see only treetops out the side window; for all we know, there could be nothing but air between the crumbling side of the road and the terra firma of a valley 6,500 dark feet below.
10:30 becomes 11:30, then 12:30. Will it ever end? We imagine, with slightly desperate giggles, driving on forever, until the forest reclaims the road altogether (a process that is seriously underway) and us along with it. The sun will never rise, we will never get to the Inn, the kids will have to go to Las Vegas and sell our stuff…
But the Inn does finally appear – and I can’t remember a more welcome sight. I’m counting on Yellowstone to make it up to me tomorrow by being spectacular enough for those last horrible miles to have been worth it. And a nice healthy breakfast at the so-called “best restaurant in any national park” Old Faithful Inn café sounds pretty darn great, too.