This travel diary was written in the field by Lisa Schnebly-Heidinger, documenting a road trip that she took in early 2019 with her father, Larry Schnebly. Her most recent book celebrates her family's deep Arizona roots, The Journal of Sedona Schnebly.
Day Four: Remember All That Jazz, and Roy Scheider’s look in the mirror with an increasingly hollow “it’s showtime…”? That’s today.
Yesterday was sublime. And grisly. Over and over again.
It was a 19-hour day with 12 hours driving. It was scenery I never dreamed I’d see in real life. It was a moment of a sickening sinking heart, and of ecstatic rejuvenation. Then it was six hours’ sleep because the heater turned off as soon as the room was warm, so I got up to turn it back on every hour (with one two-hour stretch) like putting wood on a fire. I’m numb. But even looking at yesterday’s pictures reminds me how much grandeur we were in the shadow of.
The photos can’t get in right now because there’s no WiFi except my phone, so I will have to add them at the lodge later. Therefore, if this whole thing has a truncated flow, it’s that. Or fatigue. I used to think there was extra credit for never admitting anything bothers you, but I’m calling this one myself: yesterday whupped me. And then did it again for fun.
Okay. Whining over. Let’s get to the great stuff.
Breakfast was, improbably, at Denny’s - just a block up Highway 89 in the right direction. They do a surprisingly good omelette with squash and other things. Larry had pancakes and eggs. We were both jiggly with anticipation over getting to see Yellowstone, and each adding two states to our life list: Montana for both of us, Idaho for him and Wyoming for me.
Driving north out of Logan, I didn’t realize I missed North Logan because Waze was on and neither of us was checking her work on the paper map. But we ended up on 91 instead of 89 and realized it in Preston. Maybe Waze felt so bad about that she got flustered, but whatever the cause, she took us in a series of left turns that ended on a dirt track called Radio Station Tower, so I fired her and we pieced our way to a four-corners store, where two kind clerks talked us onto Highway 32.
Adventure’s when you don’t know what will happen. I felt terrible for wasting time and slowing our arrival to Yellowstone, but Daddy swore it was fun seeing every single new thing, regardless of whether or not it was planned. And it did take us through some amazing country: snow-capped peaks in every direction, with pastoral valleys between.
I remembered that every time he came to visit me in Flagstaff when we were the Channel 3 Bureau, I’d be looking forward to a nice dinner, and there would be a plane crash. So predictably that the last time I mentioned he was coming, our assignment desk editor Jack Penland said, “So a plane crash.” There wasn’t. A train ran into a car. Anyway, I know now that Dad really did enjoy the spot news experience and didn’t miss the good dinners. I decided to see this the same way.
I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but when Sedona and I were in Europe, it was repeated feelings of, ‘I knew on some level this existed, but I never thought I’d get to be in the same place as it.” That happened yesterday. We were winding down a gorgeous canyon next to a clear green rushing river that kept dropping away then coming back to keep us company, and it turned out to be the Snake River. The Snake River. Right there! We got out to do some audio.
Since it was a long-haul drive and we were planning to get a good dinner at the bar in the Old Faithful Inn we decided to do a road lunch. I added a pack of black licorice to our stores on a gas stop (and each has been a pleasure because the signs say things like $2.93 instead of back home’s $3.17) so we feasted: Lar had one of his India Pale Ales and white cheddar baked puffs before licorice, while I had pumpkin seeds with the end of my herbal tea from home with a licorice dessert.
Years ago, Lyle had read a book and was amazed it contained so many different stories: The Sword in the Stone, The Knights of the Round Table, and King Arthur, etc. I older-sister-smugly informed him those were all part of a whole. This area is like that: one minute you’re in Jim Bridger National Forest and right over the rise are the Grand Tetons. We drove a long time, doing a comfortable 55 only for a spell before another town meant 45 down to 25. We got to go through Smoot, which pleased us greatly, and places so other: ranches with huge gates, stock for miles, tidy homes looking out over their holdings. Finally, Afton: home of the world’s largest antler arch. Really — it said so.
Then Jackson Hole.
Upscale on the fringes and authentic on the main drag; another place I didn’t expect to share space with. From there, it wasn’t long before we saw the Tetons, and finally the gate into the park, which would lead us in another few hours to Yellowstone. Land ho!
We pass buffalo. Central-casting buffalo. We drive and marvel, drive, and marvel. Then we come to a sign: road closed.
But…but…what? And no phone service.
Okay. The earth spins once slowly, and then I think: we just need to do the most logical thing; what would that be in a world that makes no sense? Find a cell signal.
We drive back to Crater Lake general store and gas pumps.
The women there are also kind and sympathetic: yup, the south entrance to Yellowstone won’t open for about ten days.
What? What? How could we not know this? The North Rim closes, but it says so. (Well, so did Yellowstone, but not for a long-ass time.)
How can this possibly be made right? I’m aware it’s 4:30 p.m. so we should be checking in; do I lose the reservation? I picture an 8-11 hour drive around to somewhere else.
Well, it’s not that bad. It’s about four hours to the west gate, back to Jackson Hole then north.
The sinking feeling that we could have avoided this…how did I not find this information sooner…goodbye nice dinner and hello forced-march drive…well now, “adventure is when you don’t know what will happen” is a bit less fun.
But despite the fact that Larry is 90 and I’m a pile of neurosis, we can rally. I pick out a box of Nutter Butter Peanut Butter Sandwich cookies to add to what will now be a second road meal, thankfully we have plenty of food and beverages and a pretty full tank. Okay. We are backtracking.
Now on the plus side, the Tetons from this side look like they should, saw-toothed and soaring.
We pass the frozen lake that captivated me on the way up. We are in driving hell but scenery heaven.
The clerks had warned us to really slow down after dark. “Most animals’ eyes are reflective, but buffalos' aren’t. Their hoofs are, so just don’t overdrive your headlights.”
This is where Daddy deserves better. We’re going up out of Jackson and a pickup with a hatted driver decides it’s more fun if he can make a whole bunch of drivers go really slow. We are doing 40 in a 55, then 25 in a 40, and the line behind him gets ever longer. I do not handle it well.
Finally, I get to pass him — we were second in line. We sail on with me trying to calm down and Daddy probably wondering where Lisa went and who let this dervish into the car. We snack. We ride. We talk about the bears riding rapids on the Jackson Hole sign we saw the second time through.
Worried about getting lost, or maybe just bruised from having thought everything was fine right up until the road closed, we both keep checking on our location — him on a paper map, me on my phone. We ask a guy at an Ashton gas station if these are the best directions and he tells us how to cut half an hour off, which is good but creates uncertainty.
But lo, it works. We are rolling up to the West Yellowstone gate and it’s still light. We did it. Saints be praised, hallelujah and pass the potatoes, we’re here.
I’m so energized and ecstatic I want to stop at every site on the way to the hotel. But seeing them suffices; we can come back. The surroundings are surreally lovely: steam and snow sharing space around every turn.
It’s supreme, it’s sublime, it’s such a relief. We’ve gone from Utah to Idaho to Wyoming to Idaho to Montana and back to Wyoming. We have beds waiting for us. We drive to Snow Lodge, check into our frontier cabin, and find 708. But the keys don’t work. We both try. Drive back, find a guy. He does it; looks at us like we shouldn’t have been left unsupervised: so simple. I make him wait till Daddy is able to repeat the trick. Pull the door toward you. We can’t be the first people who needed that information, but whatever.
The cabin is wide and spacious, four windows showing full dark that waited until we got here. We pile our stuff in and Daddy realizes his iPad is in the car. Which is divine intervention, because I’ve left the hatchback open. We get the stuff…and realize the door shut. Back to the lodge, another key, in the room.
Numb-stumbly tired, we crawl into our big beds. You already heard about the Night Heater Dance.
The best part of right now is knowing all of that will be funny later. And that all in all in all, as Tom says, we did a mighty good job.
Love and gladness, you weren’t with us.
And this just in! Now I’m here, in the lodge, with WIFI to add photos.
And I got us out of the $109 one-double-bed-no-bath cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs tonight into one with two queens (beds, I mean). And the manager gave us a voucher for dinner there tonight.
I’m wobbly on my pins, but I’m happy. Thanks for going through all this with me.
Day Five: All Yellowstone, all the time.
We stayed in one place. All-day. What a gift. It’s supplanted by ten hours of sleep in this extremely warm cabin at Mammoth Hot Springs Lodge.
As charming on the inside as it is here, with a robust heater. This morning is yesterday’s mirror opposite, waking rested and already happy instead of trying not to cry. Yesterday we dressed in our shivering space and went into the main dining room at Snow Lodge, and that’s when things began to turn around.
Thanks to Cindy DiFranco’s generous gift, we had a lovely breakfast evocative of El Tovar: my smoked trout omelette was up to any of their offerings, and of course, all the staff members wear name badges with their hometowns, so we got to ask Travis about Nebraska. Travis of the earnest eyes and man bun was able to share that he’d been most recently in Indonesia visiting a friend teaching English there; the name tags help us converse and learn. And one very nice guy sitting nearby was happy to take a picture even before I finished explaining the 89-90 trip.
Our first goal for a free day was to visit the Old Faithful Inn where my good-sister Nancy (sister-in-law to those of you not versed in Old Scottish) had worked one summer during college. We got cleaned up and drove the short way over, stopping to fill the tank before we ascended the wide steps into the historic building. It looked to me as if it hadn’t changed at all — again, El Tovar-ish lightning rods, dormer windows..."parkitecture".
Upon the porch was even a rustic homage to her fountain service.
What those folks did with carving knotty wood surpassed anything I’ve seen - climbing bears and frisky animals, it looked like.
Some of "the Nancy’s" of today were having a meeting inside; she reported the interior has been completely changed. But because it opens in ten days, we couldn’t go in and ask.
If we’d waited that long to travel, we could have taken a tour, which would have been nice. But again, as in Europe, everything we see is new to us, so we took in other sites with that time.
The one can’t-miss was Old Faithful. I’m mixed about “I’ve seen something millions of other people have seen” as a reason to do something, but in this case, that many have because it’s pretty wild. Dad found out while I was getting recording equipment and talking to folks that there are more than 700 geysers here: more than anywhere else in the world. And this is the granddaddy of them all.
Although, he’s gotten less faithful as time advances; earthquakes and eruptions other places have changed the magma close to the surface, and by close, Dad says three to eight miles here. The shooting water isn’t like clockwork anymore. By the time it did erupt, scores of tourists, mostly Asian, were ready with cameras. As were we; Daddy took the photo because I was recording the hiss of steam and spray overlaid with excited babble.
Before this, we’d seen disappointed people leaving another nearby geyser site, which is marked by pathways and steam. A young Asian man named Jeff reported they’d just missed it. They, and I, thought it was Old Faithful. But after they left and Larry was inside while I got the equipment from the car, it roared to life!
I found out once inside the Visitors Center that it was Beehive and only erupts once a day. Lucky me.
All the walking outside in the brisk wind and damp cold takes a toll. It feels like being in Flagstaff during a storm. Wonderful, but getting into a warm car or building is such relief.
After the Old Faithful walkabout, we were happy to drive on up the road to see the other places on our wish list One of the colorful pools we hoped to see is colorful only in summer, occluded by steam now. Cross that off. But Gibbon Falls was roaring full of snowmelt sediment.
And we passed some of the other 700 geyser spots. When we were in London with Michael Riley, every few feet held some treasure. While he knew so many of them, my constant, “What’s that statue? What’s that arch? What’s that building?” was sometimes met with, “Just some statue. Just some arch. Just some building.”
So on this meandering drive toward the north entrance (we would have seen Yellowstone Lake but it’s closed for another ten days — well, the road is closed, not the actual lake. That’d be cute if they took off boards and woke it up) we would see an unsigned geyser site and say, “JSG.” This is one of the Just Some Geyser sites.
There was road construction for a while, but what a gorgeous place to sit on the road. We finally reached Mammoth Hot Springs about 2 p.m., and went inside for a late snack, since we had that lovely voucher for dinner in the grand dining room. In keeping with dessert every day, we both had Moose Tracks ice cream, because you have to, and coffee.
This isn’t "parkitecture", but more reminiscent of the grand Victorian Lodges from Vancouver to the Adirondacks.
We found our cabin, and this is a small thing, but sometimes the delights are in the details. Apparently, every room inside Yellowstone gives you a very special soap. In each case, we haven’t wanted to use him up. Taking him would have meant he would either be a melting hazard or end up stashed in a drawer because I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to whittle him-suds him down. I give you Soap Bear.
After getting his portrait, I came back down to the lobby for WiFi to get what we have learned is important information: finding out what national park roads are open. Glacier was the next and last one on our list. Does anyone want to guess when it opens in the spring? I’ll be so impressed if you get it. June 22.
We would not have wanted to postpone this trip that long; one of the best parts of being here now is the easy flow of sparse traffic. Apparently the 20-minute trip from the West Gate to Old Faithful Inn is normally over an hour. The second great part about doing this now, although we wouldn’t have predicted it, is that everything is blanketed or festooned in snow. It looks so much more like what I’d want it to look like.
Here’s where I got to do my planning:
Finding out we can dip a toe in Glacier at St. Mary’s, I went about figuring out how far we’ll travel the next few days and nailing down lodging. I also connected with the only person I know in Montana, and that Larry knows. David McCumber was city editor for the Arizona Daily Star back in the day, when I dated a string of Star reporters. He is also the author of Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch. He left journalism for a period after the Star to hire on as a cowboy and wrote the book. I was reading it last spring when Larry and I did the Utah-Hanksville-Great Gallery trip, and it’s one of those books with so many matchless and unexpected lines that I would write them down as I paused to absorb them, and when I was done I sent that to David.
Authors like to hear that someone likes a book, but when anyone says specifically what resonated or charmed them, it’s priceless. At least to me. So, I try to do that when I can. Although, that isn’t often. I can think of fewer than six of the however-many books I’ve read in my life that were worth that exercise.
Anyway, said author called while I was there to help with the planning. We will stay at Duck Lake Lodge tonight after hitting the Canadian border and bouncing off. David said today we will see many of his favorite places: White Sulphur Springs, Livingston among them. Then tomorrow night we will meet him for dinner in Butte. That reservation may be the highlight lodging of the trip: The Vault Room at Miners Hotel, which David suggested. It’s a historic building that kept the old vault. Under “order what you can’t get elsewhere,” the Vault Room is the gold standard.
But we have miles to go before we do that. After I did the planning, I came back to the room for us to go to dinner. And as we walked out, it began to snow.
Any dinner in the four-star dining room at Mammoth Hot Springs would be wonderful. A free dinner was even better. (And special thanks to Jim Arnold, for providing our before-dinner drinks. Well, not carrying them to the table, but bankrolling the experience.)
To sit at this table under the wide window watching it snow…and then getting to see two buffalo running around the park outside? Priceless. I’ll let that be the last image. Love.