travelog 9


We had it like millions of other tourists: it was just too hot in the Southwest. With 106-130 Fahrenheit (in the shade) hiking, photographing and field studies are no fun anymore - except for someone who has a fulltime hookup to the electric system and lets the air conditioning run day and night or stays the whole day in a cool swimming pool.

That's why we are heading north and want to visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park on our way towards Canada. Many people told us, and we also read it in our guides, that Grand Teton is not a very heavily-frequented park but that visiting Yellowstone would be a real challenge, especially in July and August. But what we encounter then, surpasses our fears by far...

Grand Teton, a "small" park (125'666ha) with a beautiful mountain range that towers high above a plain with lakes, rivers, coniferous forests, meadows full of wildflowers and open prairie, can be seen at a glance. Fortunately there is a dirt road which is no yet a victim of the American accessability-mania (the more paved, the better), where only small cars and 4x4-vehicles can be driven. At the moment you leave the main highway, where cars and RV's drive in almost endless lines, you are suddenly totally alone. Here you have the opportunity to park at different viewpoints, where you can watch animals in their more or less natural environment without crowds of people and without traffic jams. On the river greens browse elk, deer and moose, on the prairie meadows stroll lonely bison bulls not to be disturbed by any car. A big Bald Eagle watches from his viewing platform (better: viewing branch) life beneath him, and flocks of Canada geese camp near the water. As soon as you come back to the main road the reality catches you again: full parking areas and hiking trails, campgrounds filled up as soon as 9 am, roads where car follows after car and RV follows after battle-ship (we called the really big campers/RVs that because of their immense size). Here nature cannot be called nature anymore.

From this park someone can directly pass over to Yellowstone National Park, the so-called first US National Park, with 898'350ha considerably bigger and counting among the most-liked and the most-visited parks of the United States. Although people might think that the crowds of people disperse because of the immense size of the park, the reality is totally different. Perhaps Americans out of big cities are feeling like that, but we get very quickly claustrophobic feelings and switch our visiting times for the geysers, hot pools and springs to early 5-8 am. After 9:30 am one car follows the other, the parking lots are overstocked and on the wooden pathways around the geysers people are standing in line to take a picture or to catch a view! As soon as we leave our PocoLoco, we are surrounded by people asking the common questions (where do you come from, where do you head for, why and how). When all are satisfied and we are ready to see something, it starts behind our backs with people trying to open our driver's cabin doors or compartment flaps or trying to climb on our vehicle. The so-called "experts" are especially busy, touching everything, knocking on everything, kicking to the tires (they could be made out of other material than rubber!), crawling below the truck and telling their companions with pompousness that they should know, that this is a vehicle of 4-5 tons weight, that its origin is - as you certainly can see - New Zealand and that you can buy such a vehicle for about $60,000 - of course new...

On the campgrounds they pursue sightseeing out of their cars; they park with roaring engines (no one would switch their engine off...) and watch our vehicle, they creep around, they take their pictures from all directions, knock on our door to ask something - in short: there is absolutely no peace and quiet at all!

At the moment someone sees a wild animal near the highway there is a traffic jam. Everyone wants to take home a piece of nature. They snap with a flash against their own car windows - these are the cautious tourists - and the others jump out of their cars, despite every official warning (they can be read everywhere and at the entrance gate the rangers give you a written handout). With their point-and-shoot-cameras they approach heavy bison or giant moose, only to try to take a format-matching photograph of this wild animal. The best story (we unfortunately only heard about from people we met) is that of Japanese tourists trying to put their little child on the back of a wild moose, only to have the opportunity to take an "individual" shot. No wonder at all that people are injured (or even killed) every year while doing such foolish things. If you ask these people what they are thinking while doing that, you receive no answer - it's likely that they forgot their brains at home when departing for their vacations.

The eruption of Old Faithful, perhaps the most famous geyser in the park (probably because it's reachable within 100 yards by foot and has regular eruptions), is a spectacle on its own. Absolutely not because of the geyser itself, but because of all the people! On 5 rows of wooden benches all around the geyser every 2 hours thousands of people gather with their cameras, ready for the big shot. As soon as they see some bubbles coming out of the geysers mound, the camera shutters are rattling and buzzing; but at the moment at which it really erupts in a huge jet, the crowd gets out of control - they snap, flash and film like fools. In the early hours of the day we like the geothermic areas the best - with their hot pools and the less visited areas, where the ground seems to consist only of steam (in the cold morning air) and the air smells strikingly of sulphur.

Although we like the Lower Geyser Basin with Old Faithful the best - it's also the most visited area - the region around Norris, the Norris Geyser Basin, with its very rare and biggest acid geyser in the world, Echinus geyser (the water should be as acid as vinegar - we didn't try it!) and all its geothermal springs which are like colorful lakes and pools, impresses us almost as much. The harmoniously coloured hot springs (for example Cistern Spring) show all variations from a deep dark to a unreal bright blue depending on their water temperature, merging into a bright yellow or orange, where bacteria could have developed for lack of high temperatures. Dead and totally white tree stumps and trunks, most of them covered with sinter because of geothermical activity, stand there like memorials in a landscape otherwise so green and full of life - what contrasts!

But after only three nights we decide to escape the crowds of tourists and probably come again - when the season is over or not yet beginning. But we will not leave the park before visiting the Mammoth Hot Springs. On our way a black bear crosses the road, watching interestedly around him, climbing up a hill and vanishing in the tall grass - as fast as he appeared before. Mammoth Hot Springs is an area with a lot of inactive hot springs. Often springs fall "asleep" and others awake to new life. Once they had to "evacuate" a tennis court to protect it from the fast growing sinter terraces. But the most beautiful spot here are the Minerva Terraces, a hill covered with colorful terraces, small pools and waterholes. Depending on the minerals in the water the colors are different: the inactive areas show different gray shades, the active ones are coloured in a salmon-pink, dark yellow to orange or bright white.

July 1998

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen