Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Anticlimactic Story of How I Did Not Surreptitiously Run Into My 80-Year Old Pen Pal, Carl Love, in Yellowstone National Park

It was August 2000, year of our lord. The Kreitner family was in Yellowstone for around five days, taking our sweet time with a park that, if it is not America’s largest, is at least the densest as far as attractions go. While most parks tend to specialize in either amazing creatures, beautiful scenery, or interesting geological phenomena, Yellowstone excels in all three.

Anyway, one day we were visiting yet another batch of geo-thermal pools and hot springs. We were standing on the boardwalk the park service constructs above these features, allowing you to walk right out and over them and to see into their crystal-clear, colorful depths. I was leaning over the railing, probably trying to wrap my mind around the concept, if not the word, of the “abyss,” when my beloved Yankees bucket cap fell into the boiling, sulfuric water. I started bawling, knowing, having watched the parks video, that many people die every year by accidentally falling into the thermal waters or deliberating reaching in to retrieve some cherished artifact which they know, in the opposite case, would do the same. I loved that hat, but did not want to die. Broken-hearted—I had lost another cherished Yankees hat the year before after I left it in a Broadway theatre where I had been forced to endure some one-woman play about the Titanic—I repaired to the car and eventually flew back to New Jersey, thinking there wasn’t a chance in the world I’d get the hat back. A good stoic, I was already learning to move on.

After dinner at the Red Robin near the Newark International Airport (a returning-from-vacation Kreitner tradition), we got back home and my parents checked the messages on the machine. I was called in to listen to one. It was from a man named Carl Love, who said he had been visiting a geothermal pool in Yellowstone when he saw a hat floating in the water. He got his fishing pole from his car and yanked the hat out. When it had cooled down, he checked the inside and found our phone number there. If we would just give him our address, he’d mail it back.

I don’t know what happened to that hat. I probably lost it in some much less illustrious way or finally threw sentimentality out the window during a rare purge of my closet. Perhaps it did not survive my self-granted promotion from "Yankees fan" to "Ramones-listener." 

Anyway, I have been pen pals with Carl Love ever since. I’d send him letters from camp, postcards from my travels around America, England, and elsewhere, and he would send me his family’s generic typed Christmas letter with a personal handwritten note at the bottom. Carl lives in Boulder, Colorado, most of the year, but for 30 years or so has worked and lived in Yellowstone for the whole summer. Every year I love reading his stories about life in the park, especially his close encounters with grizzly bears. We’ve never met, though I nearly had the chance when I was in Denver for a few days two years ago. I could have taken the bus to Boulder and surprised him at his house—one of only a few addresses I've ever bothered to memorize—but for some reason I opted to spend another day exploring Denver.

Fast forward to this spring. I sent Carl a postcard from somewhere in the South, saying that Brahna and I were on a four-month trip across the U.S. and that we would probably be in Denver sometime in May. When we decided later that a dip down through Colorado wasn’t in the cards, I was pretty disappointed, figuring I’d lost my last chance to meet the man who is technically (and in more than one way) one of my oldest friends. I was thrilled, though, when my parents told me on the phone that they’d gotten a letter from Carl Love, asking them to tell me that he would be going up to Yellowstone on May 11th, and that he was sorry we couldn’t meet. Coincidentally, Brahna and I had specifically chosen not to go to Colorado in May so that we could spend more time in Yellowstone and its environs. My dad found his phone number online, but, because I’m me, I didn’t call it until the morning of May 11th. It rang and rang, no answer, no voicemail. Another Google search found his name in a church bulletin, so I called the church. A very nice lady, amused by my story, confirmed that Carl had left that morning. She did give me the helpful information that Carl worked at a store inside the park. Beyond that, I'd have to do some old-time investigating.
The decision to make it home for Grandpa's funeral contracted our time in Yellowstone from four days to one, and anyway it seemed like tracking a man whose picture I'd never seen in a park as big as Yellowstone was a lost cause. We started at the northern entrance to the park, where informal interviews at several gift shops led me to the personnel office of one of the two companies who are contracted to run concessions in Yellowstone. They, probably illegally, told me that they had no record of an employee named Carl Love, but wished me good luck. At least I now knew which company he worked for.
Several dozen bison, one grizzly bear, and a few geysers later, we decided to stop for lunch at Canyon Junction, near the famed Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls. One of the stores in the complex was still closed for the season, though I saw sealed boxes inside waiting to be unpacked. While Brahna surreptitiously heated up our leftovers in the microwave of the other store, I asked the oldest employee I could find whether they knew of one Carl Love. Indeed, she did, she pronounced him lovely and a real old-timer at the store next door, the one that hadn't yet opened. That that store should be his home-away-from-home made sense, I realized, since he had just arrived in Yellowstone the day before, and the store seemed ready to open in just a few days.
In any case, since this story is already getting too long and, quite honestly, there is no great climax to it—no Oprah-worthy moment where I meet and hug Carl Love and perhaps experience some kind of grand realization about my own life and that of my late grandfather—I'll just wind it down here. She didn't know where Carl was at that moment, though she did say I could try the motels in West Yellowstone, about 30 miles or so out of the way. Time was short, though, and we still had a lot of park to get through before retiring for the night in Jackson and catching our sunrise flight the next morning. I scrawled out a little note for the woman to give to Carl when she saw him. I explained the situation, about how we just missed each other and how Brahna and I were flying home last-minute. In the back of my mind, I thought about the possibility that we would try to find him again the following week, after flying into Jackson and driving back through Yellowstone towards our next destination. When the time came, of course, we had somewhere we wanted to be and didn't make the stop. It leaves us with a good reason to make it to Denver in the not-too-distant future: another one of those little presents Brahna and I have left to our future, older, more earth-bound selves, places all around the country that we decided to skip this time but to which we have promised to return. As for my pen pal, as a lifelong fisherman he should know as well as anyone that things come up.
Lastly, because that was a lame ending, because I only really wrote this post because I finished the last one with an implied promise of a story to come, and because, as it was mostly set in the pre-digital past, I didn't have any pictures to put in it, and because you've been very well-behaved in reading this far, here's a picture of an elk.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Wyoming and the Black Hills

We’ve already written about how driving across the country gives one a renewed appreciation for the reality of this country as one broad land, stretched from sea to sea, a unified fabric or quilt in which each section blurs into and blends with the next. The changes are so gradual that it is often difficult to detect in the course of a single drive. One day you’ll be driving and suddenly realize, “Hey, I guess we’re on the plains.” That major benefit of ground travel—noticing those gradual transitions, appreciating the reality of living in a diverse but unified country—is completely absent from air travel, where you are more like Dorothy floating over the rainbow and into munchkin-land, lost and senseless as if in a dream.

Brahna boarding the plane in Jackson, Wyoming.
During the brief time we were home for Grandpa’s funeral, Brahna and I couldn’t stop pointing out the many contrasts between New York and Wyoming, between the east and the west. As with the fabled frog in boiling water, our culture shock upon suddenly returning to New York was much more acute than it was when we were gradually driving through much more foreign territory in the South and the West. Brahna had a hard time getting a cab outside Penn Station, and was reduced to tears at having to participate in the same classic New York hustle-and-bustle that she basically became an expert in after growing up on the Upper West Side. Though I grew up in the suburban jungle of North Jersey, I was still surprised to see, from the window of the plane landing in Newark, the amazing vastness of Northeast megalopolitan development reaching around to every horizon—highways, houses, and high school football fields obscuring any evidence that at one point there was actual green earth. Unless one knew better, it would be difficult to identify spacious Wyoming and overdeveloped New Jersey as belonging to the same planet, much less the same country.

This dichotomy was made even more apparent to us when, not 15 minutes after disembarking in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we were looking at a young bull moose. It was on the road towards the Grand Teton National Park visitors’ center, where we wanted to pick up the prized cancellation stamp we’d missed last time since we drove through the park after dusk. It was closed this time too—the plan landed at 5 p.m.—but the moose, our first on this trip, was a good consolation. Later, as we drove through Yellowstone toward our destination for the night, Cody, Wyoming, we “collected” another first sighting of a local animal—the elusive bighorn sheep. They eek out a living on mountain slopes so steep your more responsible (and predatory) mammals wouldn’t dare to enter, and are generally pretty averse to human beings. As soon as we stopped the car, they took off down a cliff so steep I would have bet money no animal could survive the descent.

Young bull moose in the Tetons.
Bighorn sheep in Yellowstone.
We were pleasantly surprised by Cody, a town founded by and named after William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the famous military scout and shameless promoter of the “Wild West” myth. After touring his Wild West Show around the world, performing in front of kings and queens and even Pope Leo XIII, Cody started building a town at the eastern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. When it was incorporated in 1901, it was probably the only town in America created specifically with an eye toward commemorating the fabled American West which was elsewhere still not entirely dead—to the extent it had ever really existed at all. Now, with fake “Western” street facades a reliable fixture of any tourist town between the Mississippi River and the Sierra Nevadas—and even much further afield than that—Cody has had to make itself stand out in other ways. These days, one of the most prominent attractions in town is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a grouping of five distinct museums that, if it doesn’t quite avoid the trappings of classic Old West mythology propagated by Buffalo Bill and his many co-conspirators, nonetheless manages to bring the story somewhat closer to historical reality and more politically-correct storytelling. I particularly enjoyed the art museum, with its focus on both presenting and undermining the traditional interpretation of the West presented by the likes of Frederic Remington and N.C. Wyeth. There were also lots of great paintings of bison—including some grisly hunting scenes—that, a true and loyal Kreitner, I found myself returning to again and again. We didn’t have enough time to explore all the museums, but we did run through the one devoted to firearms, which houses the largest such collection in the world. Though we might have benefited from having the least bit working knowledge of guns going into the exhibit, and frankly didn’t really “get it,” there was still some strange, simple, primal amazement to be had at seeing so many deadly weapons in one place, and seeing how people through the ages have created them not only to perform those grisly functions but also as works of art in their own right. If life was longer maybe I could manage to become interested in the craftsmanship and variety of deadly weapons, but as it turns out, there seem to be better things one can do with one’s time.

Speaking of time, we had to be getting back east. The whole first part of this trip was all about moseying—we took three weeks to get to New Orleans, a drive that could be done in as little as two days. We were in the Southwest and in California for a month each. Since the beginning of the trip I have traced our exact route, road by road, on a AAA map of the country, circling and numbering each overnight location. Especially for the first part of the trip, the route shows a lot of twists and turns, detours, and even full circles in places like Mississippi, California, and the Pacific Northwest. Our original plan for the month of May had been to continue in Canada after Vancouver, to explore the mountains of British Columbia and Banff National Park, then to cut south back into the U.S. through Glacier National Park. After that we’d do Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago and the Midwest, and then maybe even a dip down into Appalachia through Kentucky and Tennessee. It wasn’t long before we realized those plans had to be scrapped almost entirely. It was about time to start putting some serious miles behind us, if we were ever going to get home.
The drive across flat Wyoming—a state my mother still brags about hitting 101 mph in—was mostly uneventful, except for the super-intense hailstorm we hit while crossing the Bighorn Mountains. While I slowed my speed to around 3 mph, Brahna took a video of the scene: dozens of golf balls slamming against the car every second, the sound like an invading army, me shutting the cloth insulator of the sunroof in case the glass should suddenly crack. The clip will be part of the epic DVD we hope to make from the trip.

 After a night at some nameless motel in the town of Gillette, we went to Devil’s Tower in the far northeast corner of the state. Rising 1,300 feet above the sprawling prairie-dog colonies of the surrounding landscape, Devil’s Tower has often been compared to a massive stone tree trunk. There are a variety of competing theories about how it was formed, none of which I understand. We walked around the base of the tower, a trail of less than two miles, ogling at the few rock-climbers we saw progressing—or, in the case of one apparent novice, not quite progressing—up the deep hexagonal striations that together constitute the tower’s most puzzling feature. The Plains Indians of the area, who object to the intrusion of the rock climbers on what they consider sacred space, believe the striations were caused by the claws of a giant bear climbing up the tower after some naughty children. Or something like that.

Brahna looking for climbers on Devil's Tower.
A prairie dog in the colony near Devil's Tower.
 Next we stopped in Deadwood, South Dakota, an interesting old Western town that had an HBO series made about it a few years ago and which loves more than anything else to be called an interesting old Western town. If Cody, Wyoming was the first town to artificially market itself as the last outpost of the real American West, the town of Deadwood raises that template to an art form. It is not that Deadwood doesn’t have a real frontier past to commemorate—the excellent Adams Museum in town proved that it does. But more than anyplace else Brahna and I have visited on this trip—including the historic antebellum plantations in the South—the town of Deadwood literally survives only by feeding on its past: a few years ago, the state legislature allowed Deadwood to legalize gambling in order to raise revenues for preservation of its historic sites. The golden era of Deadwood’s past was the late 19th century, around the time that the Black Hills gold rush created a general atmosphere of vice and lawlessness in the town. Now the town capitalizes on present-day greed and avarice in order to preserve the sites where past greed and avarice flourished. That exquisite irony seems at once to undermine the historical preservation efforts—as Faulkner famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—and to perfect them.

Wild Bill was shot in the back of the head. The hand he was holding -- pairs of aces and eights -- is now called the "dead man's hand."
Bust of Wild Bill in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The next stop on our itinerary was another strange effort at historical commemoration, a memorial whose strangeness is not mitigated by the fact that it is perhaps one of the most recognizable images in the world. Gutzon Borglum’s purpose in creating Mount Rushmore was not simply to make the faces really, really big and to make the Black Hills the worldwide epicenter of shameless roadside kitsch and self-defeating, nature-obliterating hyper-commercialism. The Black Hills, actually, were by the 1920s already a major tourist destination—many in the area, not just Indians, objected to the sculpture as “a desecration to God’s own creation.” Borglum, however, with his characteristic grandiosity, boasted about how his creation would outlast human civilization itself. The placement of Mount Rushmore alongside other Americans icons like the Statue of Liberty and the Stars and Stripes tends to obscure this curious distinction. Just as someone once said that the thing about prison is that there are bars on the windows and they won’t let you out, the thing about Mount Rushmore is that some guy used dynamite to carve the faces of four other guys on a massive mountain, that millions of people go really far out of there way every year to look at it, and that those faces will together represent one of the last reminders after we are all gone that we were ever here at all.

Travel is interesting when you encounter the unknown, but it is also interesting when you encounter the already-known. Seeing the Grand Canyon directly in front of you is so comically more exciting than seeing a picture of it that one wonders why people bother to continue photographing it at all. Other things are hardly more interesting to see in person. Often it depends on your mood. Sometimes you feel it, sometimes you don’t. Anyway, I was surprised to find myself actually appreciating Mount Rushmore as both an interesting social memorial and an amazing feat of engineering, rather than ridiculing it as a boring tourist trap or a shameless waste of money.

At Mount Rushmore.
We retired that night to the Shady Rest Motel outside the town of Custer. Not expecting much, and perennially fed up with fleabag motels, we were surprised the find ourselves in a cozy little cabin for the night, complete with access to a hot tub, a porch swing, and a little kitchenette. We decided to stay for a second night, and mostly lounged around the next day after a brief drive through Custer State Park. 

Shady Rest Motel in Custer, South Dakota. Highly recommended.
Breakfast getting cold.
 The next day we drove out of the Black Hills to Badlands National Park, thus completing what for the past week had been a re-enactment, in reverse, of a vacation my family took in August 2000, driving westbound through the Black Hills and Wyoming and ending up at Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Besides many photographs of me feeding cheerios to donkeys with an oversized Yankee shirt on and an army-style crew cut, and many good memories, there is one other souvenir I have from that trip: an 80 year old pen pal named Carl Love.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Photos From The West Coast

While the world eagerly awaits the epic conclusion to our Great American Road Trip, take a look at these photos we posted this week from the West Coast. These were taken from around the day we entered California on April 1 to the day we left Vancouver on May 10th. Here's the link: pictures from the West Coast.

And some spoilers:

At Moro Bay, California.


Brahna indulging my hobby of finding covered bridges, near Scio, Oregon.

 Again, here's the link, and you don't need to have an account on Facebook to see the pictures: the West Coast.