As the first rays of light enter our cabin, I am seated at the dining room table, sipping my second cup of coffee. The coyotes had been howling last night, spooking the horses and pack mule in the corral. They moved about uneasily, their voices raised in frightened protest.
We had gathered with our fellow guests for our last night at the camp fire. The 9-1-1 Operator and volunteer firefighter from Pennsylvania poked at the burning embers and regaled us with his latest adventures in the park. Both he and his daughter were chatty, outgoing people. His son, a firefighter in training, was somewhat reserved. His wife, a nurse, was almost always silent. As the hour grew late, another couple joined us at the fire chat. They were from Texas and within minutes, had someone managed to offend everyone in the circle. That was okay, everyone took to star-gazing instead. The Texan continued to rattle on to no one in particular. He knew just about everything there was to know about anything and obviously held himself in high regard. That Texan had some tall tales he should have kept to himself.
The night sky was amazing. I haven’t seen a sky so filled with stars in a very long time. It make me realize we need to get out of the city more often. Hubby, Kiddo and I watched the sky in silence. Texan got the hint, and drew quiet himself. The silence made it easier to excuse ourselves for the night.
I can still smell the lingering odor of a wood fire on the jackets hanging near the front door. Kiddo and Hubby are still sleeping in the back bedrooms. We had agreed, this our final day, there would be no alarm clocks, no schedules and no set plans. The trip was too fast, we had packed so much into these last few days. It was time to slow down.
Wapiti (the actual location of the ranch, some 25 miles west of Cody) seems to exist in a time zone all its own. The sun slowly begins to sink in the west sometime after nine o’clock, and the last traces of light somehow stall just beyond the mountain peaks until nearly ten at night. Yet by five in the morning, the sun-kissed the night away, and the morning light begins to fill the valley.
Now on my third cup of coffee, I can hear the dogs yapping down the gravel road toward the corral. A quick glance out the window, and I see the couple from Texas hitching up their horse trailer to a very sweet heavy-duty pick’em’up truck. Rand Creek Ranch is an animal-friendly place – dogs, cats, horses. I took my cup of coffee out onto the porch. This is it. This is the morning of our last day. Tonight we pack, and tomorrow we hang out in beautiful, down-town Cody until flight time. Breath in the last of the Wyoming air, I told myself. Third cup of coffee gone, it was time to go back inside.
This has been a great trip. We’ve seen just about everything there is to see without heading off on back country trails. Once upon a time, hiking the back country was fun, exciting and adventurous. While the idea of hiking about up and down the mountains, forging streams and swatting at mosquitoes sounds lovely, the reality is that I am no longer physically able to run about like a young girl. The altitude is high, the air thin and simple short hikes get me winded. That’s frustrating for me. I expected to be more physically able. Hubby sweetly reminds me that six weeks have passed since my stay in the ICU. Still, I wanted to be better prepared. We’ve planned our daily hikes around my ability, with more strenuous hikes later in the day for the guys while I rest at a lodge or picnic area. Kiddo has been terrific, as my eyes on this adventures. Both he and Hubby capture images to share with me later. I’ve downloaded their photos on my lap top to enjoy while I sip my coffee. My thoughts are interrupted by the sounds of footsteps on the porch. Seven in the morning – right on time. Joel has delivered our Continental breakfast. Krystal has been super about not sending temptations of baked good that I might not be able to resist. Two pieces of pastry, one for each of the boys, fresh squeezed orange juice and a container of yogurt for me. I fetched our pail of goodies from the front porch, waived at Joel and took a moment to pet the dogs. It’s time to roust the boys. After all, this is our last day. Our last day . . . as my hero John Wayne would say “Daylight’s burning” .
Smith Manson – The Winchester House of Wapiti
Anyone traveling from Cody west into Yellowstone Park does so via the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway. The byway follows the Shoshone River, twisting and turning with the river itself, from Cody to the east gate, passing through the tiny hamlet of Wapiti on the north fork of the river. Everyone in Wapiti Valley seems to know the story of the house on the hill. The rambling log structure, with undulating staircases, umpteen balconies and fun-house warren of half-finished rooms, has loomed on the hill for over 30 years. It is the stuff of legend, folklore and stories. Some of the more far-fetched tales involve a lookout tower should the super volcano in Yellowstone ever erupt. The Smith Mansion is far too close to the park. Should the super volcano ever blow, the mansion would be turned to ash in moments. The home was single-handedly built by Francis Lee Smith. He worked on the home for over a dozen years, intending it to be home to his family. Somehow the project took on a life all its own. What began as a rather mundane family home grew into so much more. Some believe Smith would have continued to build had he not fallen to his death from one of the balconies. Despite the wild Wyoming winds, Smith preferred to work untethered. The mansion has since sat empty, accumulating myths and legends of the ghost of a madman. His daughter hopes to raise enough money to save the home as a museum, fearing that it may be destroyed by trespassing teenagers and curious tourists.
A Final Farewell to Our Nations First National Park
The road from the East Gate into Yellowstone twists through Sylvan Pass. When the proposal of a road from the east was first considered, both Jones Pass and Sylvan Pass were under consideration. While both were thought to be excessively difficult, the Sylvan Pass route was chosen. Appropriations were approved in June 1900 and again in March 1901. Construction began in July of that year. The east entrance is one of the most difficult, mountainous routes in the park. Although people had been entering the park from the east for years, the ranger station check point at the entrance was opened in 1934. One of the sights along the east road drive is the stunningly reflective lake Sylvan Lake.
The Corkscrew Road and Sylvan Lake then . . .
Sylvan Lake Today
Artist Paint Pots
Three miles south of Norris Geyser is the equally large but less active Gibbon Geyser Basin. The most popular of its features is Artists Paint Pots, a grouping of over 50 springs, geysers, vents and mud pots.
Fountain Paint Pots
Fountain Paint Pots contain all four of the thermal features typically found in the park – mudpots, geysers, hot springs and fumaroles, in a very compacted area. While none of the geysers here are famous, they erupt so frequently that you are almost guaranteed a show.
By the time we reached Canyon Village, it was time for lunch. We had a choice – the diner-style counter at one end of the big General Store, or the cafeteria-style restaurant at the opposite end of the village. The diner was packed. Cafeteria it was. By the time we finished lunch, it was late afternoon. The park was crowded. People everywhere. Traffic crawled. We had to pick a rim drive since there was only time for one. This was not our first visit to the park. We’ve visited both the South Rim and the North Rim Drives. Today we picked North Rim for Inspiration Point. Unfortunately, the Point was closed. No matter, there are several views of the canyon that are worthy of attention.
Our final day. This would be the last drive up through Sylvan Pass and out the east gate. No one said much. We knew, as it is with each visit to the park, that we would be taking a part of its majestic beauty with us, in exchange for a small piece of our hearts.
One Last Drive from East Gate to Wapiti
Wapiti, Indian for Elk, is a small tight-knit community between Cody and the eastern entrance of Yellowstone. This area is an outdoorsman’s dream. Plenty of wildlife, great fishing, and interesting rock formations. The people have a strong sense of community. You can feel it in the air. These are people with a love of the west the way it once was. Spend time in Wapiti, and you will understand why.
Normally, a Big Boy Statue would not draw much attention. We lived in Las Vegas, where the bizarre was normal. That said, this Big Boy Statue was so out-of-place, you couldn’t help but notice. Its very presence cannot be explained. It is located along a sparsely inhabited stretch of highway that connects Cody to Yellowstone Nation Park. This range land is actually in Wapiti. The fiberglass statue, standing on a concrete pedestal, appeared in the summer of 2013. Talk to any of the locals, and they have no explanation except that the land belongs to a man of means who is rarely around. You can tell, the locals aren’t happy.
Our bags are packed. We are ready to go. Tomorrow we will load up the car, give Krystal a hug and promise, just as we have in the past, to return. We know we will.