TRAVELING TO YELLOWSTONE IN THE AFTERMATH OF TRAGEDY

September 27, 2001 11:00 pm
Madison River is beginning of nation?s greatest river system. ().
Madison River is beginning of nation?s greatest river system. ().

By WILLIAM LUNDQUIST

My return to Yellowstone National Park, to pick up my son from his summer job, was different in ways I couldnt have imagined when I dropped him off in May.

To pick him up and get him back to the University of Oregon in time, I had to leave Sept. 11, the day terrorists changed America forever.

When I left Brookings that night after work, I had no idea if I could drive to Yellowstone, or if my son was safe.

I left long lines and skyrocketing gas prices behind, hoping I could get to Medford before stranded airline passengers took all the motel rooms.

Gas prices were closer to normal in the Rogue Valley, and the motels were busy, but not full.

The farther east I drove the next day, the more normal the situation seemed to be, except for what I was hearing on the radio.

The other difference was the increased traffic on the road, both cars and trucks, because of the grounding of all planes.

Drivers, especially in the big-rigs, were treating each other like every car was full of Arab terrorists.

Psychologists said in the newspapers that under the stress, Americans might find themselves kicking their dogs or taking out their frustration in unintended ways.

Strangely, people who had made several attempts on my life on the road would hold the door for me at the rest room of the next freeway stop.

On the positive side, the Stars and Stripes was flying high, even at half-staff. The flag in Bly was so tattered it really looked like a relic from the war of 1812, but it was waving proudly against a desert blue sky.

Burns was flying the biggest flag Id ever seen. It had to be the size of a football field. At half-staff, it was draped over treetops.

I expected to drive east across Oregon into a righteous redneck rage over the terrorist attacks, but I found the response quite measured. People were mostly concerned for the victims.

During a 20-minute construction delay between Lakeview and Burns, I listened in on a conversation between two cowpokes.

These guys literally had red necks from riding the range, but they agreed the United States should proceed cautiously so as not to exacerbate anti-American feeling throughout the world.

Those werent their exact words, but close enough that I was surprised and amused by the sagebrush statesmen.

East of Burns, I ran into evil weather, and something that seems even more sinister in retrospect.

It was a classic thunderstorm: midnight-black sky, intermittent downpours, and bolts of lightning striking straight down into the hilltops.

One bolt was so broad that a fountain of red erupted when it hit the side of a ridge. It looked like a laser blast from a movie.

Thats about the time I noticed a crop duster, several hundred feet up, flying a course to intersect the highway exactly above my car.

This was before the FBI warning about terrorists trying to steal crop-dusters, but I still thought it was odd, because nothing else was flying that day.

Even if the ban on flights didnt apply to crop-dusters, I wondered why anyone would fly one in a lightning storm.

The plane didnt dive low to dust the fields, but intersected the highway a couple more times just above cars.

It then flew high over a field, several hundred feet up, with a thin trail of red material streaming out behind it.

I suppose the average rancher would know exactly what it was doing, but it looked suspicious to me.

I stayed overnight at my sisters place in Ontario and tackled the Idaho freeways the next day.

The speed limit in Idaho is 65 mph on many two-lane roads, and 75 mph on freeways. Thats about how fast the big-rigs drive, though their speed limits are lower.

Most cars travel at 80 or 90, so it takes only about five hours to drive from the Oregon/Idaho border to Idaho Falls, where the road branches off to West Yellowstone, Mont.

That kind of speed cost me about 10 miles per gallon, but gas was only $1.51 in Boise and $1.54 near Rexburg, Idaho.

The weather was a bigger problem. As the day wore on, one black cloud engulfed the entire Snake River plain, and another covered much of the Great Basin.

The only blue sky anywhere was right above the freeway, but the gap kept closing until it disappeared near Pocatello.

Just as the heavens opened, the gap between my car and the big-rigs disappeared too, and I found myself surrounded on all sides, blinded by the spray. I stayed in the pocket, kept a steady speed, and we all came out of the downpour in one piece.

Its about a two-hour drive from the freeway to West Yellowstone, and the scenery gets better with every passing mile.

Immediately north of Ashton, the road climbs steeply to a high plateau between mountain ranges.

At the start of the ascent, autumn announced it was already in full swing at this altitude with a broad band of red across a ridge.

The top of the plateau is lodgepole pine country, interspersed with open meadows. There are few deciduous trees in sight.

The road finally goes over the 7,000-foot Targhee Pass before it drops into the town of West Yellowstone.

The pass isnt as intimidating as it sounds, because it just marks the line between a 6,000-foot-high plateau and one at 7,000 feet.

West Yellowstone is aptly named. Its right at the west gate of Yellowstone National Park. I stayed seven miles west of the town proper at a Super 8 motel in a complex called the Lionshead Resort.

The resort also featured an RV park, a store and Alices Restaurant.

Alices lived up to its reputation for great home-cooking. My meal started off with a small loaf of the best home-baked bread I had ever tasted, complete with strawberry butter.

My fish fillets were crisp, the potatoes mashed, not whipped, and Alice brought me a pitcher of water. The grand total, including cheesecake, was $11.

The talk in the restaurant was about how terrible and sad the situation was in New York, but I didnt sense any anger.

In fact, the deeper I got into the heartland of America, the more people viewed the whole thing as just another one of those things that happen on coasts, like earthquakes or hurricanes. They felt bad, but it didnt really affect their lives.

West Yellowstone has created some worthwhile tourist attractions of its own, just outside the park entrance.

In a single old-west-looking log complex is The Yellowstone IMAX Theatre, the Museum of the Yellowstone and the Grizzly Discovery Center.

I spent my evening in West Yellowstone watching IMAX movies. The film Yellowstone may be better than actually seeing the real park.

When a grizzly bear stood up in front of me, six stories tall and roaring with 12,000 watts of sound, I discovered feelings in the pit of my stomach I didnt know I had.

Back at the motel, I shared a hot tub with three ladies from North Dakota on their way to a family reunion in Las Vegas.

They didnt have to be there for a couple of days, so they thought they might visit the redwoods and Los Angeles on their way to Las Vegas.

I told them about Brookings and the redwoods near it, but I warned them they were talking about driving more than 3,000 miles in two days.

I finally advised them to drive south to Salt Lake City, turn right and try to hit the ocean an hour or two north of San Francisco.

I asked them if they were afraid of staying in high rise hotels in Las Vegas or Los Angeles, and they couldnt even understand why I was asking.

They were aware that the airlines had been grounded, forcing some of their relatives to have to drive to the reunion.

Beyond that, they didnt think what happened in New York would have any effect in the West.

If the terrorists thought they could create panic in America, they were dead wrong. I realized this country is way too big to scare.

A few missing skyscrapers, or even a missing city or two, wont intimidate most Americans. Weve got plenty more, and well replace what we lose.

Its long been said that when Americans go on vacation, they leave their brains at home. Apparently, they leave their fears there too.

I was feeling more optimistic and was ready for whatever adventure Yellowstone had in store for me the next day.

To be continued