After a wonderfully refreshing five-and-a-half hours of sleeping like the comatose (or, at least, the way I imagine the comatose must sleep – soundly, insentient, and almost entirely without moving), we get up early again. Breakfast is simple and full of protein, and sitting in the sun 150 feet from Old Faithful, waiting for the eruption, is pleasant and peaceful. As we wait, we think about geothermic activity.
We know from our geology course that the magma plume that created Yellowstone 600,000 years ago is about 200,000 years overdue for its next cataclysmic event (the last three being, respectively, 600,000, a million, and two million years ago). The next one, which is inevitable, will return North America to the Stone Age and create thick clouds of ash and dust that will block the sun and create a year of more of extreme winter around the globe. The vapor and plumes of bubbling water steadily leaking out of Old Faithful and Yellowstone’s many other steam spouts are eye-catching and interesting, but, representing boiling basaltic magma as they do, they’re also a tad alarming.
Still, though, Old Faithful’s eruption is wonderful – after a few minutes of teaser spray, 5,000 gallons of pure, white water shoot 150 feet into the air in a glistening column surrounded by billowing clouds of steam. Thrilling. And how amazing that this phenomenon has evidently been occurring every 75 minutes or so for 600,000 years. Clearly, geothermal energy is the thing to harness – it’s virtually unlimited, nonpolluting and reliable.
The rest of Yellowstone is a low point on our trip. It’s a tacky tourist trap, albeit one set in an exceptionally beautiful assemblage of volcanic plains, glacial mountains, craggy peaks, conifers, burbling brooks and rivers, dramatic falls, thermal pools with thin crusts of ash, etc., etc., etc. We leave (via a gorgeous northwesterly descent) with a strong sense of relief.
It’s only Day 3, but we’re falling seriously behind and we don’t want to risk another midnight National Park run, so with only a little regret we decide to take the interstate and get ourselves across Montana as fast as possible instead of taking the scenic route up through Great Falls and then over to Glacier NP. To get to the interstate, we still have to do the first leg of the scenic route, and the 77 miles from Yellowstone up to Livingston are so gorgeous and soul-replenishing that we forgive US 89 for the trouble it caused us yesterday.
And I90 is an unexpected delight. Not only does it get us to Missoula in record time, it’s spectacularly scenic AND we get to stop at Matt’s Place in Butte. Matt’s is an extremely discouraging-looking establishment next to a gas station that serves a toothsome pork chop sandwich (the Montana classic, apparently) and more first-class chocolate malts. Thank you, Jane and Michael Stern, for your Roadfood book; without it, we would never have considered venturing into a place as sketchy-looking as Matt’s.
We fall in love with Montana as we drive across it from Livingston to Missoula and then up to Kalispell and Glacier National Park. The roads are a miracle – perfectly banked, incredibly well maintained, and virtually deserted. The few other cars we encounter use the left lane for passing only and maintain both appropriate stopping distances and consistent speeds of 75-80mph, road courtesies we thought had vanished forever.
We have to remind ourselves that this I90 is the self-same I90 that is the difficult Dan Ryan in Chicago. Out here, it could easily be part of a national park itself; it’s hard to imagine the scenic route could have been any more scenic. Enormous flat green pastures ease into the gentle, rolling foothills and towering mountains that undulate across the landscape, the foothills seemingly slip-covered in rich tan suede, the khaki and sable mountains studded with evergreens, some like polka dots, others so dense that the mountainsides look carpeted. Every now and then, there’s a sheer shale slope, just for dramatic effect, and huge, gray-black peaks streaked with puddles of snow loom benignly in the high, far background. The sky is indeed big, big, big.
For one astonishing section between Bozeman and Butte, there’s a collection of those crazy rock formations that look like some giant and maniacal child broke up a mountain, then reassembled the craggy boulders into a generally conical shape, but with all sorts of gravity-defying slabs and blocks. These unlikely structures pop up all over Nevada and Arizona, too, but in Montana, evergreen trees have taken root in the spaces between the chunks, adding a tall, green component to the overall red-orange otherworldliness.
Flathead Lake opens before us as we head north, a panoramic spectacle even better than the Bear Lake vista that astonished us yesterday. Better because Flathead Lake looks like Alaska, which we fell in love with last July. Tall, steeper but still rounded glacial mountains rest gently on the calm azure water, ranks upon ranks of evergreens blanket their slopes, more evergreens crowd onto the islands that dot the surface of the water, and in Montana it all basks gorgeously in bright sunshine. We start talking about renting a cabin up here next summer or maybe even buying a summer cottage. It’s not Alaska, but it’s darn close in look and feel, completely appealing in its own right, and a lot easier to get to from Las Vegas.
Glacier National Park keeps the Alaska illusion alive with the serenely magnificent Lake MacDonald. Our adorable little cabin at Lake MacDonald Lodge is just steps from the lake, and the Lodge’s dining room offers a flawless meal of ruby red Idaho trout, simply and perfectly grilled, crunchy steamed broccoli, and a pear and gorgonzola salad that would be right at home in the fanciest of big city restaurants. Dessert is the fresh 54-degree air blowing off the lake.