Thursday, August 14, 2008

Blue skies and a warm morning: quite a change from the chilly night. I think I must have exclaimed how happy I was not to be camping last night at least ten times. As usual, I woke up early, anticipating the opportunity to get a sunrise video-shot of Old Faithful. Dozens of folks lined up on the benches arrayed around the smoking mound, with seemingly everyone asking each other when the geyser would erupt. Chipmunks cavorted underneath the wooden planks, followed by eager children. It's really amazing to imagine the size of the mini-city built around Old Faithful: inns, cabins, restaurants, souvenir shops, and acres of parking, all to see a semi-regular explosion of steaming water. The minutes passed and the crowd grew, and at last -- the pressure rose, creating a thunderous pounding underground and spikes of water leaping upward, and then . . . nothing. The water, which rose only about five feet, fell back to earth. Was that it?

Cameras lowered and the crowd murmured. Minutes passed, five then ten. No one seemed to know when the thing would erupt. Suddenly, another whoosh and another steam-burst. At last, cascades stretched upward and smoke billowed outward, racing toward us. Tiny droplets drizzled down and a thin rainbow stretched outward. It was a different spectacle than the one we saw last night, but still an awesome display. Even so, I could tell that many folks were disappointed. This eruption wasn't as photo-friendly as the postcards led many to believe. And then it was done. I could almost hear Marty Moose's voice drooping, "So-rr-rry folks!" Most stood up and walked away, but a hearty few appeared determined to wait for the next show, only ninety (or so) minutes away.

I was more than satisfied with two Old Faithful eruptions in two days, so I returned to our cabin and met Jenny, who'd been taking a nature walk. She photographed a deer, a marmot, and a chipmunk. Vienna simply enjoyed the chance to catch up on her sleep. Before long, we cleaned up and checked out, grabbing a quick breakfast before heading west out of Yellowstone. I figured the rest of the day would be boring if we drove the interstate, so we agreed to stick to two-lanes. What a great decision. The traffic was nearly non-existent and the day was bright. We stopped at a drive-in restaurant boasting a tall root beer mug and had a snack. Afterward we poked from town to town, chatting about the vacation and enjoying our playlists. We even stopped by Rigby to tour the Birthplace of Television. We'd completed our itinerary and had no plans for precisely how to get home. No reservations left.

I'd looked ahead and spotted a chance to see something called Craters of the Moon National Monument. At an Idaho Falls visitors center I looked for pamphlets where we could learn more, but I only found a thin card describing the site. Would it be worth the stop? Having no better plans, we motored west until we came across the entrance. We caught an introduction movie on its last showing of the day and, while interviewees kept saying how amazing and otherworldly the place is, none of us saw images that looked particularly interesting. But we had a year's worth of free passes to national parks and monuments, and I wasn't going to let that deal go. So we set forth on the loop road, forgoing the eight-dollar fee, with low expectations.

Initially we were underwhelmed. Craters of the Moon is a roughly 700,000 acre field of lava flows, seemingly frozen in time (though geologists would surely disagree). The course, black sand, the volcanic craters, the craggy, twisted formations, and the surprising ways that plants and animals have managed to adapt to this forbidding landscape are indeed weirdly beautiful. But the overhead sunlight made for maddeningly flat photographs. We drive the seven-mile loop and took a brief hike but never could see what was so special about the place. Vienna was definitely not impressed, and she wasn't feeling well, so Jenny and I figured we'd take a brief hike to the caves area and hit the road.

We've never gone spelunking, and given the tendency of the National Park Service to maintain a safe distance between tourists and anything remotely interesting, I was amazed that we could enter the caves formed by lava tubes. But along with signs warning that we might get injured or worse by trying to navigate these underground passages and caverns, the NPS provides maps and descriptions of the caves. I couldn't resist. After an introductory plunge into Dew Drop Cave, amazed by the speed at which the temperature plunged as we climbed further and further down, Jenny and I headed for Indian Tunnel. After descending some conveniently placed steps, we walked and climbed and shimmied our ways through a remarkable passage, even as bats squeaked above us.

At one point, we figured we'd reached the end of the tunnel, only to realize that we had to climb a mound of collapsed rock in order to continue along our path further and further from the entrance. Finally we made our way to the exit, climbing through a relatively small hole to a rolling field of twisting lava that looked a lot like the giant serpent that gave shape to this place (according to one Native American legend). The stone path was far away, and Jenny and I wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into. At once the wooden poles we spotted a while back made sense; they provided a path back to the main trail. We stood tall, enjoying the feel of the wind that had picked up, noting how the setting sun cast deeper shadows on the world around us. Everything seemed thick with dimension and meaning, and I began to understand why Craters of the Moon is worth the visit.

Returning to the car, we found Vienna feeling much better after a needed rest. In fact, I turned the wheel over to her, as we headed toward our mutually decided destination of the night: Twin Falls. The wind was cool and the sunset resembled a poured bottle of merlot drifting on the clouds. The air smelled of hay as we drove through farming country. For miles at a time we'd be the only motorists on the road, grooving on the twilight. Jenny sat in back, occasionally shooting video of Vienna and I chuckling about whatever crossed our minds. It was one of the nicest evenings of highway driving that I can recall. Indeed we felt so pleased about our adventures that we treated ourselves to a higher-end hotel than usual, anticipating with glee the wireless network, 24-hour indoor pool, hot breakfast, and late check-out time. Twin Falls was a great place to end our day.

All text copyright Andrew Wood.
Photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood.