Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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I was in Vernal, Utah, when Gena phoned to tell me she wouldn’t meet me in Jackson Hole as we had planned.  “Yellowstone’s forecast for Saturday is rain and snow,” she said.  “I don’t really want to drive five hours to Jackson to drive five hours back in more snow.” 

Montanans, understandably, are tired of snow.  It has been snowing or raining for most of the past nine months.  While New Mexico dries out in severe drought, and Arizona is on fire, Montana is drowning.  Creeks and rivers overflow their banks.  Roads are closed.  Towns are flooded. 

“Maybe I’ll just go through Idaho and skip the park, if the weather is bad,” I said,  too tired to be anything but understanding, although I had looked forward to the fun of dinner in a Jackson restaurant we both like, and the adventure of caravanning through Yellowstone.  I was tired because the route from Moab David had suggested required an 8 hour drive for a 4 ½ hour trip.

Leaving New Mexico several days ahead of me to get to a workshop in Canada, David phoned to suggest a new route from Moab to Vernal.  “It’s beautiful,” he said. 

“Is it longer than my way?” I asked. 

“I don’t know.  Longer, shorter, not much difference.  You just follow the Colorado.” 

Moab is part of our route between New Mexico and Montana.  We time it to allow space for a hike before driving further.  I like going up to Delicate Arch in the morning, then making a relatively short day’s drive to my next overnight.  In winter,  driving through Salt Lake, I stop in Ogden, but when the weather is good, I go over the Uinta Mountains, around Flaming Gorge and up to Jackson.  Following David’s directions from Arches National Park, I turned left after the bridge over the Colorado to drive along the river.  Flowing fast and brown and over its banks, the Colorado and the road were all one plane.  I wondered that it didn’t come over the road.  “Go past Castle Valley,” David said.    Beyond Castle Valley the road over the LaSals turned to dirt.  Odd, David didn’t mention it, I thought.  It’s a good dirt road, but still, it’s the sort of thing one might notice . . .   

Wild iris bloomed in meadows backing away from the road, wild iris and lupine, pale blue and the deepest purple-blue.  The new green of aspen shimmered delicately on the rolling, forested tops of the LaSals.  It was a quiet wildness through which I drove, a  solitude of trees and grass and space.  No other vehicle passed, either direction.  Odd, too, that David  hadn’t mentioned how little traveled the route was . . .

Hours later I reached pavement.  “Gateway,” the sign said.  To what, I wondered.  I drove into the parking area of a luxurious, manicured resort.  In the resort’s general store, the clerk asked if she could help.  “Maybe,” I said.  “I don’t know where I am.”  

Where I was, apparently, was hours from Vernal.  The clerk’s directions led me to the edge of Grand Junction where a man in a nutritional supplement store googled Vernal, then printed out a map for me.  After a few miles of interstate, I returned to the two-lanes I’d been traveling since leaving New Mexico.   (Leaving New Mexico seemed weeks ago, although, in fact, it had only been the morning before.  Whatever else travel does, it expands time.)    

A dog sat next to the road.  As if waiting for someone.  But the road striped  through wild country-- no houses, no farms, just country.  I passed him, then turned back. As I slowed to park, he ran deeper into the brush, then sat again, watching me as I walked a little towards him.  “Dog,” I said.  “Dog.  Here, Dog.”  He turned, running beyond my sight.  I wondered what I’d have done with him if he’d come.  There wasn’t a spare inch of space in the car.  I’d packed everything necessary for the months in Montana, and the backcountry trips we’ve planned while we are here.  Even the passenger seat had stuff on it.  I suppose I could have piled that on top of everything already piled on the back seat.  I wouldn’t have left him if he’d come. 

I reached Vernal at 8:00.  It was noon when I left Moab.  After Gena called to tell me she wouldn’t come to Jackson, David phoned to say he was in Banff.  I told him I would not follow his directions again.  He said I already hadn’t followed his directions, that there was no dirt road the way he’d driven.  I suggested there was something wrong with his directions.

In Jackson, the hotel manager said the road over Teton Pass – my route into Idaho – had been closed a few hours the previous week because of snow.  “The Park should be alright,” he said.  “I’d go through the park.”

I’d begun to think that, too.  The Park is home to me, the place I worked for seven summers, the place I’d skied more winters than I can remember, the place I’d written about since the 80s.  Home.  As much home as my house in Montana.  More.  I’ve been in the park longer than I’ve been in this house.  I’ve been in remote areas of the park in August blizzards, the cold so piercing you thought your hands wouldn’t ever come free of your horse’s reins.  You wondered if you’d get to camp.  You wondered if anyone else would. 

Here I was in a vehicle, for heaven’s sake.  With a heater!  Why wouldn’t I go through the Park?  How soft have ten years in New Mexico made me? 

The Tetons looked liked the Himalayas, snow-covered, cloud piercing.  Black  rock ribs cut through the deep, cold white where snow had blown away. Clouds played along the peaks and couloirs, lifting, sinking, wrapping peaks and faces in veils the white of snow so that cloud and mountain became the same.  The valley through which I drove was deep, vibrant green.  A herd of buffalo grazed meadows to the east.  As I drove north, more and more snow appeared. On a grey, drizzly morning, there was little traffic..  Beyond Yellowstone’s South Entrance, snow along the edges of the road--plowed to open the road for summer—towered above the few vehicles passing by.  The Snake River ran faster, fuller than I’ve ever seen it.  Lewis Creek, always tricky with its swift, hidden currents poured more furiously into the Snake than I could have imagined.  (Oh, I hated that crossing at the end of a pack trip, trying to direct my horse, Ace, hard across while hanging on to the mules being pushed downstream by the current.  Dying would be such a stupid way to end a pack trip, I thought each time.)  When Lewis Lake came into view, it was an arctic lake I saw.  Iced over and snow covered, blue ice buckling up near the edges, it was a formidable sight eleven days into June.

The North.  I had entered The North.  Home.  A northerner, I embrace the huge, silent, deadly beauty of this place.  There is a directness about the North.  Either you manage it.  Or you don’t.  

When I described it later to Gena, she said “It wouldn’t have been the same if you hadn’t been alone.”  She was right, of course.  To enter the fullness of an experience, one must do it alone.  In sharing, one creates bonds, but the full effect of the experience dissipates.   Sharpness melts; edges soften.   It’s no wonder writing is a solitary job . . . .    

By the time I crossed Craig Pass to drive down toward Old Faithful, where thermal features create an earth too warm for snow to linger, rain began in earnest.  I bought a sandwich at the Old Faithful Inn and went up to the deck to eat it, hoping Old Faithful might go off while I was there.  (It didn’t.) 

I stopped at the general store to ask for a child’s scoop of Wilcoxson’s ice cream. (Made in Livingston, Montana, Wilcoxson’s is the best non-high-falutin’ ice-cream in the world. It is sold in all the park general stores, and is always my welcome to Montana.)  The man, scooping from a new vat, worked hard to get the first scoops out.  “I just want a small scoop,” I reminded him, as he continued scooping Moose Tracks into a dish.  By the time it looked like about a pint of ice cream, I said, “I don’t think that’s a single scoop.” 

“Yes, it is,” he said. 

“They won’t believe me at the cash register.” 

“Take it to that man over there,” he said.  “He’ll believe you.”

“The man scooping the ice cream says this is a single scoop,” I said to the man at the cash register.  “He says you’ll believe me.”

“Nice single scoop,” the man at the cash register said.

Copyright © 2011 Ruth Rudner