Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Under the Big Sky

I had not seen the northern range of the Rockies since 1967 when I passed a delightful summer working in Grand Teton National Park.  Early September seemed like a good time to return.  My wife had just retired; I was nearing seventy, and the prospect of cool weather offered a welcome change from the Texas heat.  So let’s go to Montana, we decided.

My first Google search brought up an entry for Austin Adventures.  I naively associated the company name with my hometown, which gave it a leg up on the competition.  And even though it turns out that their “Austin” is a surname, the trip they offered was just what we had in mind—southern Montana and Yellowstone.  And as long as we’re going to Montana, why not visit Glacier as an appetizer?

After my Seattle odyssey (see the previous post to this blog), I started to watch reports of western wildfires with unusual scrutiny.  The Glacier area was particularly scorched this summer.  The Thompson Creek and Reynolds fires closed some of the roads surrounding the park and inconvenienced travelers there.  Turns out that our arrival corresponded to a change in the weather.  While we were glad to bring rains to northern Montana, our good deed did not go unpunished.  Although we managed a couple of short hikes, one to Salamander Glacier, and take the Jammer bus across the Going-to-the-Sun highway, my wife and I spent much of our time watching the drizzle and hoping that it would stop. On our last day in Glacier the Going-to-the Sun road was closed by a snowstorm. The weather changed for the better as we drove back south toward our Austin Adventure.

Bozeman, Montana, our point of departure, is a charming little city.  As the seat of Montana State University, Bozeman offers bookstores, haberdasheries, a movie theater, and the fabulous Black Bird CafĂ© all within a few blocks on Main Street.  We overnighted, unwittingly, in a hotel hosting the fiftieth reunion of the Bozeman High class of ’65, but all went pretty well (we didn’t want to use the swimming pool, anyway).  Bright and early the next day, just as promised in the Austin promos, our two guides-- Amy and Corey, a twelve-passenger van, and a large trailer, crowned by a dozen bicycles pulled into the parking lot.  With two subsequent stops, we were joined by three companions.  That’s right, all that infrastructure for five paying passengers.

Despite the rustic settings of the tour, Austin Adventures insists on over the top amenities.  No suitcases could be lifted, no one was allowed to step in or out of the van before a small, red carpet was laid out on the ground.  The trailer was filled with surprises. We were asked not to look inside-- reducing the risk of industrial espionage, I suppose.  But throughout the week, magical things emerged, like rabbits from a hat.  Fresh fruit, iced drinks, parfaits, sweets and nuts all found their way from the trailer to our mouths.

One thing that the trailer did not hold was camping gear.  This was not a sleep-on-the-ground kind of experience.  Each evening’s dinner was arranged at one of the area’s nicest restaurants, including Yellowstone Lake Lodge where we ate near retired US Senator Alan Simpson.  I could not help but notice a significant change in the staffing of the resorts.  The bright-faced American college students of the 1960s have been displaced by youngsters from Europe and eastern Asia.  All of them had H-1B visa status and were soon to return to their countries when we spoke with them.  I’m glad I worked in the Tetons when I did.

In between the meals we took a vigorous hike up the Beehive Basin in Montana, above Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone Park into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and to Old Faithful geyser, just in time for its eruption.

We were blessed with pleasant companions and perfect weather. Traveling after Labor Day, a first for us, minimized the crowds and enhanced our animal sightings.  We managed to glimpse a black bear and her two cubs, a couple of mountain goats, several elk, and a small band of bighorn sheep. American bison are now so numerous in Yellowstone that we grew tired of photographing them.  That is until while having our lunch near the Fire Hole River a group of two-dozen bison huddled me behind a tree as they passed by on either side.  That was a little too close.

Our next adventure was selling a house in Austin and buying one in Houston, all in two weeks.  More on that later, perhaps.