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Posts Tagged ‘industrial tourism’

I always expected that the middle third of our outbound trip would be the most psychologically difficult.  We’ve been getting further from home with every mile yet are still a very long way from road’s end, and it’s been difficult to strike the right balance between keeping the driving days manageable and making enough progress to feel like we won’t be on the road for all eternity.  Moreover, I know from her tone of voice on the telephone that this stage has been tough on Belinda, too.

But things are looking brighter.  Tonight, we’re holed up in Hinton, Alberta, and by perhaps lunchtime tomorrow we should make Dawson Creek, BC—Milepost Zero for the Alaska Highway, the beginning of the end for our outbound journey.  Tonight I had the first chance since we left to have a substantive phone conversation (beyond routine checking in) with my beautiful and tolerant (and lonesome) wife.  And firm plans are taking shape for her joining us for the middle third of the return journey.

Some notables from the last few days:

  • On Tuesday, we camped at Belly River in Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada’s sister unit for our Glacier).  We were worried that the little campground there might be full by the time we arrived, but we found it absolutely empty.  We enjoyed such a quiet night that we found ourselves ludicrously annoyed when two cars rumbled through during breakfast the next morning.

We had it all to ourselves.  Why this place wasn’t overrun is still a mystery.

The wind was just right to break out the big kite for her maiden flight.

  • We spent much of Wednesday afternoon at a place called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Blackfoot people (before horses and firearms had been introduced by European contact) hunted bison by stampeding them off a cliff (that’s an exceptionally condensed summary of a fascinating and complex practice).  This site is well worth the visit—the haunting physical location and first-class interpretive center made quite an impression on the boys.
  • Driving north from Great Falls, Montana you can’t help but be struck by the emptiness of the landscape, the feeling that you’re coming to the end of things. It’s just too cold and lonely way up there.  And then you cross the border and continue north into Alberta and the country strangely starts filling up again until you reach Calgary, a sprawling and gleaming ultra-modern metropolis that feels like a city the Sunbelt somehow misplaced.  Driving through on the third day of summer, I had trouble imagining it ever being cold and snowy and dark there.
  • Banff is a funny place.  I think about it in comparison to Jackson, WY . . . Jackson might also be touristy and glitzy and expensive (and not without its charms) but at least it’s tucked away in the southern end of the valley and doesn’t sit smack-dab in the heart of the Teton’s signature scenery.  Banff shows no such modesty.  Then again, the Canadian Rockies have so much signature scenery that one jaw-dropping valley can be “sacrificed” for a township.  In particular, all 140 miles of the Icefields Parkway heading north through Banff N.P. into Jasper N.P. had scenery so numbingly spectacular and pristine that, had I been in a pull-over-and-take-a-picture mood, the traverse might have taken us  two days.
  • That said, Lake Louise did not live up to my expectations.  Any mountain hiker worth his or her salt has been to numerous alpine tarns of equal or greater beauty that didn’t have an incongruously modern hotel and parking lots packed with tour buses at one end.

The obligatory snapshot.  Thousands of other people were taking one, so I had to, too.

  • The interpretive portion of the Athabasca Glacier visitor center (sorry, I mean “centre”) in Jasper N.P. was very, very well done.  The gift shop, however, was a joke, filled with the same useless trinkets that you might find in a Gatlinburg T-shirt shop.  I’m struck by the irony that downstairs they hit you with displays extolling conservation and living in harmony with the earth while right above they push mindless consumer dreck like Canada shot-glasses and Jasper N.P. ashtrays.  And I’m reminded of the wisdom shown by our own National Park Service in turning over visitor-center gift shop duties to non-profit natural history associations.  Instead of Gatlinburg T-shirt shops, we get independent niche booksellers.

If all goes well, by this time next week we’ll be in Fairbanks.  The roads get awfully (wonderfully) lonely from this point . . .

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I’ve been sitting in on a writing class taught by one of my colleagues, Jen Dracos, and this is what came out in my freewrite at the beginning of yesterday’s class.  The prompt was “I’m not going to tell you about . . . ”

I’m not going to tell you about Old Faithful, about the tourists who gather in great half circles on the concentric-ringed benches, looking at their watches and wondering if the Park Service has lied to them. “It’s fifteen minutes overdue” they’ll say to one another.  I’m definitely not going to repeat the teasing “Okay, that was it” refrain that ripples through the crowd after every minor splatter of water in the buildup. To give you the full effect, I’d have to repeat it over and over in a variety of voices from all different sides, pretending to get up and leave each time, and I won’t do that to you, even though I might like your help in figuring out why they believe the joke gets better with repetition. “Old Faithful sure isn’t faithful anymore”  seems likewise to have staying power.

Instead, I want to tell you about the coyote in the Old Faithful parking lot, sliding between parked Winnebagos and Hyundais and Harleys on his arrow-straight transit to God-knows-where.  I’ll tell you about the disdainful side-long glance he gives me as he ghosts past, and how I freeze with one foot on the pavement and one still in my car. He passes by so closely that I can step out and scratch him between the ears, or at least could have if I had dared to disturb the universe.  I forget all about the camera I’m clutching, the bauble I had gone back to the car to fetch.  I’d like to tell you about the wall of lodgepole pines that swallowed him at the far end of the parking lot, but there’s just not that much to say about them, a nondescript clot of trees with nothing behind them but trees and still more trees rolling away for miles and miles and miles, nothing to speak of but the Firehole River, Pipeline Hot Springs, Mallard Lake, the Central Plateau, the Continental Divide.  Maybe someday I’ll find something to tell you about that terrain.

Instead, I guess I’ll have to tell you about Old Faithful after all.  I watched the coyote vanish, looked at my watch, and hustled off to rejoin my family.  I had to hurry; according to the official ranger prediction, the next eruption would occur within plus-or-minus ten minutes of ten minutes from now.

Exactly why I’ve been giving up a free period to audit her class is a topic I’ll write about soon enough–I do have something up my sleeve.

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At Wind Cave yesterday, Ranger Sam explained how the flow of air into or out of the cave works just like a barometer and can be used to predict the weather.  Although yesterday was a hot, clear day, wind was really howling out of the tiny natural entrance, meaning barometric pressure was falling.  I had originally thought that I’d hire a guide today through the Sylvan Rocks Climbing School to set up some easy top-roped climbs for the boys, but the cave said “No, don’t waste your money.”  And it was right.  By midmorning we had cloudy skies and thundershowers.

We drove the Needles road anyway to gawk at all the cool rock formations, and the rain let up enough for us to do some cool scrambling around.

Will wonders where this goes; Andrew says “Daddy, I want down.”

This place is awesome!

From there, we drove on towards Mount Rushmore.  I wasn’t sure what, if anything, the boys would get out of a visit.  Then again, when my family visited in the mid-Eighties, I wasn’t sure what I would get out of it either, and I remember it completely exceeded my expectations.  I remember being moved by the sculpture and impressed with the Park Service’s classy treatment of the site.  I wasn’t sure if the boys would like it, but I had faith in Mount Rushmore and went anyway.

You know where this is going . . .

My first clue came on the drive there.  The desk lady at our hotel suggested taking the Iron Mountain Road to get to the mountain because of the views you begin getting from a distance.  Sure enough, the boys enjoyed the way the Presidents played hide and seek over the hills and through the trees for a while, and they loved trying out the quarter-powered view glasses at the road’s summit overlook.  But what caught my eye was the sprawl of infrastructure at the mountain’s base.  In this next shot (shot from the hip, so to speak, as we came out of one of the road’s famous tunnels), look at all the light-colored buildings just beyond the Harleyphiles’ heads.

Warning: Objects in viewfinder are MUCH closer than they appear.

So what you are looking at is a six-story parking garage.  It’s even more imposing up close, but I couldn’t snap a picture because I was in an insistent line of traffic and had to reach for my wallet; there’s no where else to park, and they charge you ten bucks (my expensive, recently purchased Federal Lands Annual Pass got me nothing).

From the top of the parking stucture, you get funneled into a long granite-paved mall, flanked with pillars and spanned by colonnades and festooned with flags.  If that’s not enough pomp and circumstance for you, you can salute the animated Stars and Stripes fluttering in the digital wind on the huge Jumbotron screen along the way (I kid you not).  The only thing missing was piped-in patriotic hymns, which might have been helpful in drowning out the constant drone of sightseeing helicopter tours overhead.

Drawn like moths to the Jumbotron.

At the end of the mall, you pass through a final colonnade and find yourself on a viewing platform which affords an awesome view of a yawning, granite-tiered amphitheatre which can probably seat ten thousand people and which is fronted by a big stage with an impressive, retractable stainless-steel curtain.  What an awesome venue this would be for Sean Hannity’s Freedom Concert tour!  Oh, you can see the mountain from this platform, too.

I keep trying to dredge up my 20-plus year-old memories of what it was like before.  I remember classy.  I remember understatement.  I remember the mountain’s being the center of attention.  I wish I could still picture it clearly in my mind’s eye.

By far the best views, and the only ones worth seeing anymore, are to be found along the trail that gets beyond all the hoopla and approaches the carvings from just below.  It still has the power to move you.  And God bless the young Ranger leading a tour along this path that we passed; her narration (the little bit I was able to listen to before the boys pulled me onward) conveyed more of the drama and greatness of these men’s lives and contributions than any amount of granite masonry ever could.

I think Teddy Roosevelt’s face is set furthest back because he would absolutely recoil in horror at what has been done to this formerly classy unit of his National Park Service.

In the end, the boys had a decent time.  They loved the display in the visitor center where you could depress a plunger and trigger footage of blasting from the monument’s creation, and they were thrilled to see a mountain goat at close range as it picked its way through the talus slope below the carving (I have to point out here that mountain goats are an introduced species, not native to the Black Hills at all).

Oh, and in the car on the way there, Will laughed louder than I’ve heard him laugh in ages when I said you could go around the other side and see the carvings on Mount Buttmore.

Tonight, we sleep in Sundance, Wyoming (“Where The Kid got his name!”).  We sure didn’t get very far today . . . thank you, Mount Rushmore!  Tomorrow morning we visit Devil’s Tower and make for Yellowstone.  We’ll be camping for the next several nights, so it may be a few days before I can post again.

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