"I looked into a gulf 1700' deep, with eagles and fish-hawks circling far below. And the sides of that gulf were one wild welter of colour--crimson, emerald, cobalt, ochre, amber, honey splashed with port wine, snow-white, vermilion, lemon, and silver-grey, in wide washes. The sides did not fall sheer, but were graven by time and water and air into monstrous heads of kings, dead chiefs, men and women of the old time. So far below that no sound of its strife could reach us, the Yellowstone River ran--a finger-wide strip of jade-green. The sunlight took those wondrous walls and gave fresh hues to those that nature had already laid there. Once I saw dawn break over a lake in Rajputana and the sun set over the Oodey Sagar amid a circle of Holman Hunt hills. This time I was watching both performances going on below me--upside down, you understand--and the colours were real! The canyon was burning like Troy town; but it would burn forever, and thank goodness, neither pen nor brush could ever portray its splendours adequately."
--- Rudyard Kipling, 1889
"It is my opinion that we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation and of our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland."
--- John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley, 1962
Yellowstone was our first national park and it is my personal favorite. Nowhere else in the world does one find mountain scenery, thermal moonscapes, noble wildlife, raging waterfalls, and painted canyons all in the same place.
Head northwest for Butte, Montana, once one of the richest towns in America, the population has been shrinking since the copper mines closed. Downtown bears the mark of easy fortunes and is strewn with once-fancy shops and magnificent bank buildings. Visit the Berkeley Pit overlook to see the 1800' deep hole filling up with water, reversing the effects of years of drainage and threatening to turn half the town back into a swamp. Furthermore, the tailings contain enough arsenic and cyanide to make this one of the most notorious Superfund sites. On the bright side, though, you can buy a nice house in Butte for between $6,000 and $18,000.
Missoula is a strangely beguiling cross between Western misfit loner culture and Cambridge/Berkeley granola culture. In the words of one local, "an easy place to get by, but a hard place to get ahead." I planned to stay one night and ended up staying three. Missoula helped me understand John Steinbeck: "Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans."
Head north to Glacier National Park. Stay in the Outlaw Inn in Kalispell, where the cast of Heaven's Gate stayed while $44 million was being spent, ultimately bankrupting United Artists. Drive over Going to the Sun road, which doesn't usually open until mid-June when they dynamite the remaining snow up at the 6,680' summit. Visit the parking lot on the edge of Two Medicine Lake where the town of Sweetwater was built for Heaven's Gate.
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Text and pictures copyright 1993-1996 Philip Greenspun