After ten days in Big Sky Country, we felt the shock of returning to New York like an oncoming train. We traded mountains for skyscrapers, the sound of gently flowing rivers for the rude report of horns, and the sight of roaming bison for that of rushing pedestrians. Fortunately, the boy accompanied us back to New York, and our nephew was waiting here for us, and the two of them were so excited about spending a week in the city that they managed to stir a little of that old excitement in us and helped to quash our hankering for cowboy country. The boys hit the streets early on Monday, heading to our favourite Union Square diner for breakfast before taking in Little Italy, China Town, Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Financial District and the Meatpacking District, finally returning home at eleven pm. Good work.
The Wyoming Holiday surpassed all expectations. We rendezvoused in Bozeman, Montana and drove to Gardiner, which sits on the border of Montana and Wyoming and near the North entrance to Yellowstone Park. The guidebooks refer to Gardiner as an old-fashioned cowboy town, and the reality didn’t disappoint. We ate top-notch pulled pork at the Cowboy Restaurant, devoured Coronas and chillie dogs at The Two Bit Saloon, and sampled the renowned hamburgers at The Corral, all the while seated beneath the stuffed bear, elk, moose and mountain lions mounted on the walls of virtually every establishment in town. (The taxidermy business is very big in and around Gardiner)
We had our first wildlife experience without even leaving the town, spotting two large elk grazing in someone’s garden next door to our hotel.
I crept to within twenty feet of the animals to take a photo, only to learn from our Yellowstone guide the following morning that several people had walked around corners and smack into surprised elks and barely lived to tell their tales. In a country that takes its health and safety and litigation very seriously, you’d have thought there might be the odd giant sign warning the likes of me to avoid getting too close. Then again, they don’t call it the Wild West for nothing.
From our base in Gardiner we explored the north west corner of Yellowstone, expertly guided by wildlife and geology expert James. Three days later we drove through the park to West Yellowstone, then further south through the Teton National Park to spend two days in Jackson followed by three days at the Goosewing Ranch north-east of Jackson.
Early highlights were the crack-of-dawn safari style expeditions into Yellowstone and Grand Teton, where we saw bears, elk, pronghorns, coyotes, red foxes, ground squirrels, eagles, hawks, deer, wolves, and my personal favourite, those magnificent bison. L1 kept calling them buffalo until he was corrected by one of our guides, who informed us that you only find buffalo in Asia, and that they have longer horns than bison and are an altogether different breed. “If they’re called bison, why wasn’t Buffalo Bill called Bison Bill?” L1 asked. His question rather flummoxed our guide, who didn’t seem to have heard of either Bill. “Beats me,” he said, leaving us none the wiser. To be fair, L1 wasn’t alone in his misconception – we regularly heard people referring to buffalo rather than bison throughout the holiday. Now you can rest smug in the knowledge that you know better.
The landscape in this part of the world is endlessly and jaw-droppingly beautiful. I distinctly remember the children being largely unimpressed by “scenery” when they were little, but on this trip, none of us could peel our eyes away from the scenes outside our windows or at the end of our telescopes. Whether we were driving with one of our guides or on our own, hardly a moment went by without someone saying, “look at that!” or “how amazing”, followed by a wistful sigh suggestive of a desire to somehow bottle the scene and keep it.
The mountains, grasslands, rivers, lakes and forests are one thing – a kind of beauty you might have seen in films and can begin to understand. Natural wonders like Mammoth Hot Springs or the Grand Prismatic Springs are in another category of amazing altogether, so eerily beautiful and unfamiliar that they seem to belong in another time, or on another planet. In fact, when I sent a picture of the multicoloured pool at the Grand Prismatic Springs to Pink Robe, she texted back, “I don’t really know what I’m looking at. Is it Mars?”
Back to health and safety for a moment. You would think, wouldn’t you, that the boardwalk through and around pools that are hot enough to boil you into a dumpling might be bordered by a fence of some kind. But no. No fence. Nothing at all to stop you being elbowed by an overly enthusiastic selfie taker and sent plunging to your fiery and immediate death. I watched one child of about three bending down to dip her fingers into one of the pools and getting yanked up by her mother just in the nick of time. It was terrifying.
Terrifying or not, those natural wonders bowled us over. As did the people we met. Those Montanans and Wyomingites (I promise you I looked that up) are a darn friendly bunch. L1 and I noticed it as soon as we boarded the short flight from Denver to Bozeman. Passengers laughed, talked and made jokes as they filed onto the plane. There was none of that head down, discrete, semi-defensive silence you get on a plane departing from Heathrow or JFK. This kind of warmth and jollity was in evidence everywhere we went. We loved our wildlife guides James and Trevor, the charming staff at the Comfort Inn, The Explorer Cabins and the Rusty Parrot, and absolutely everyone at Goosewing Ranch. Even the straight talking, no nonsense and initially intimidating head wrangler, Tom, turned out to be a charmer of the highest order. He accompanied the girls on two extraordinary private rides – through the sage brush, up and down mountains and through rivers – that they will never forget.
Jamie and Trevor spend their summers sharing their vast knowledge of Yellowstone and the Tetons with the likes of us, and their winters travelling, making documentaries and taking photographs, mountaineering and skiing. They are permanently engaged with the outdoors. Head Wrangler Tom spends much of his time at Goosewing, but regularly manages to get high up into the mountains for days at a time with just his horses and a tent. Henry, the masseus at Goosewing, spends half his weeks giving people (quite stupendous) massages, and the other half riding horses or teaching art and drama in Jackson. Hearing these people’s stories reminded us that there are many ways to live a rich and fulfilling life and that they don’t have to involve owning a property in the vicinity of a metropolis and worrying about where your kids will go to school and how they’re ever going to get onto the property ladder.
But those guys who ride the bulls and the bucking broncos? They’re just cotton picking crazy. The Jackson Rodeo was another high point of the trip, but I can’t say I didn’t flinch every time I watched an eleven-year old boy or a slight, forty-year old man trying to hang onto a raging beast for the requisite eight seconds before getting flung from its back. It was definitely exciting, but I preferred the barrel races, which involved feisty cowgirls tearing across the ring, weaving their horses around strategically placed barrels while the clock ticked.
We learned many things on this holiday – about wildlife and geology and hot springs and people and rodeos. We also gleaned a few useful tips about what to do if you encounter a bear, which I’ll share with you now. Rule number one: make a lot of noise so the bear knows you’re coming and the encounter never takes place. Rule number two: if you do meet a bear, never, ever run away from it. Ideally, you’ll be carrying bear spray which you will spray expertly at the bear’s feet as it thunders towards you. If you’ve forgotten the bear spray, you’ll need to make a lightening quick assessment as to what type of bear you’re looking at, black or grizzly. (And don’t be fooled by colour, because black bears can be black, brown or white). If it’s a black bear, punch it in the nose. If it’s a grizzly, lie down, play dead and take your beating. If the beating goes on too long, however, it means the grizzly intends to eat you, so you should get up and punch it in the nose. Got that?
Now I know you’re all awaiting news of the line dancing, about which I’ve been banging on since February. There weren’t as many opportunities as we’d hoped for, but one did present itself after the Friday night cook-out at Goosewing. French wrangler Emilie called us all together – mums, dads, kids, grandmas and grandpas – and urged us to join in and follow her lead. Alas, L1 had injured his knee two days before leaving New York (did I mention that?) and it was still giving him jip, so he could only watch and record. The boy couldn’t dance either as he was nursing a fractured vertebra. So it was down to me and the girls and the boyfriend.
I waited with bated breath, hoping Emilie was going to lead us through one of the half dozen line dances we’d learned at Arthur Murray. Perhaps the Copperheard Road, or the Fireball, otherwise known as “Pitbull Line Dance and Country Girl” (my personal dance of choice), or the simpler Cotton Eye Joe.
“First we’re going to do something they call the Cotton Eye Joe,” Emilie announced, and I gave an inner yelp of joy.
She proceeded to demonstrate. I watched. I watched more carefully. The steps bore no resemblance to the ones we’d learned. I frowned, confused. I tried to make my feet do what Emilie’s feet were doing.
“There are lots of different versions of Cotton Eye Joe,’ Emilie chirruped. “This is my favourite.”
It might have been her favourite, but it wasn’t mine. It was awfully damn complicated. I stumbled my way through it along with everyone else, eventually picking it up, sort-of, but failing to look in any way comfortable or graceful.
Ok, that wasn’t so great. Maybe the next one would be better. I crossed my fingers, hoping for the Fireball. “This one is called The Mouche Bouche,” Emilie announced. Or maybe it was the Bouche Touche. Either way, I’d never heard of it. So off we went again, me leaning forward and craning my neck in order to see Emilie’s steps, dancing like a woman who’d never danced before, and definitely hadn’t had six months’ worth of line dancing lessons at the Arthur Murray Studio.
There was a third dance, something I never did catch the name of. I didn’t know that one either. Was this what they call hubris? Or a simple case of best laid plans…. Never mind, it was enormous fun, even though I was thoroughly outshone by my daughters, who have more dancing talent in their little toes than I have in my entire body. The only person who didn’t outshine me was the boyfriend, who seemed to be facing a different way to everyone else at all times, all six foot five of his arms and legs flying wildly and joyously about.
The entire experience of being under the Big Sky was joyous. We were all very, very sad to leave. The holiday was unanimously voted the best ever, which I thought was pretty good given our various injuries, all that driving around and living out of suitcases, the five am starts, and the fact that we are more accustomed to holidays that involve a great deal of lounging next to pools with ice buckets full of rose to hand.
Wyoming, we loved you. We will be back.