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March 22, 2013

Yellowstone Hot Spring

When an American says ‘awesome’, they might mean anything from ‘quite good’ to ‘see you later’. So when I say this trip was awesome, I mean it in the old-fashioned sense of the word; i.e. makes you feel small compared with the wonderful creations of nature. Horizons wider than you’ve ever seen, vast lakes steaming with geothermal activity, forests tumbling down the sides of blue mountains, breath-taking canyons and a waterfall twice the height of Niagara. I mean proper British awesome.

But then Brits and Americans have different ways of putting things; trunk for boot, pants for trousers, rest-room for toilet, the list goes on. On one long drive in our RV, my thirteen year old son and I counted over one hundred and fifty of them. RV’s another one; Recreational Vehicle instead of Camper Van. On the other hand, travelling in an RV is not quite what is conjured up by the words Camper Van. An RV has push-button extensions which can turn the inside into a wide living room with extra sleeping areas in seconds. It has levers, gadgets, waste systems, pumps, air-con, cruise control, automatically folding steps, screen doors. And it’s these techno-gismos that constitute the main difference; an RV is cool to a thirteen year old boy in a way a Camper Van could never be. To a thirteen year old, an RV is awesome.

It would be possible to go through Yellowstone Park – the first of America’s National Parks – in a car, or even on a Harley Davidson, of which there were hundreds on the roads, and to stay in motels along the way. But you would be missing something important; for the Americans, an RV is THE way to go on a family holiday. And as my partner, son and I drove through the wide open spaces of Utah and Wyoming to get to Yellowstone, for the first time ever in the States I felt I was getting something close to respect. Like speaking French if you’re in France, or ordering exactly what the chef recommends in Italy.

Nigel at Yellowstone

Created in 1872, Yellowstone is one of the first and finest examples of Nature Conservation. Its charter stated that it should be preserved from commercial development as a wilderness, and we can be thankful for that. Although nowadays there are questions still to be answered about the Native American peoples who had been living and cultivating the land there for eleven thousand years.

It is now home to an enormous range of wildlife; bison, elk, coyote, jack rabbits, buck deer, we saw all of them. But we didn’t see any bears. Despite the fact that only hard-sided, bear-proof RVs are allowed in camp-sites – no soft nylon or canvas; despite instructions to bag and take with you all picnic leftovers; despite “Be Bear Aware” signs everywhere and Rangers giving lectures on how to use anti-bear-spray, we neither saw nor heard any bears. You can’t blame the bears really when they have a space as big and as wonderful as this to roam in.

We flew into Salt Lake City and picked up our RV there. But just because Salt Lake is the nearest big city to Yellowstone, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t a helluva long way, so I decided not to drive like a maniac for twelve hours or more on my first day, but take our time. I’d highly recommend booking through an agent, as we did, because if it had been left to me and the internet, we would have missed so much; like paddle-boarding on Bear Lake – known as the Caribbean of the Rockies because of its beautiful turquoise blue. Like bird-watching on the spectacular Bear River Bird refuge, where thirteen year old had to shut up for an afternoon. Like the Golden Spike Memorial site – a mad place in the middle of nowhere, where they re-enact the putting in of the last spike into the east-west railroad of the United States – thirteen year old reasonably impressed by two genuine old steam trains here. Like Jackson Hole, a cowboy town with old saloons and wooden boardwalks instead of pavements.

Yellowstone Geiser

By the time we got to the Teton mountain range, a morning’s drive south of Yellowstone, we’d been going for a relaxed three days and, apart from my accidentally crunching the bumper off a Ranger’s car, I was getting quite good at manoeuvring the heavy goods vehicle that had become our home.

The Tetons are worth stopping for. Jaw-dropping, snow-covered mountains which rise steeply out of a glass-flat lake. Time for more canoeing, this time on proper ‘Canadian-style’ single paddle canoes. No other human life around. One bald eagle lazily departing as we slipped by his section of the shore. After the Tetons we entered Yellowstone proper, and, because the fire hazard index was low, we were allowed to have barbecues in the campsite. We ended up toasting marshmallows, and by chance we all happened to be wearing check shirts that night. No-one started singing ging-gang-gooly songs, but I swear if they had I would have joined in whole-heartedly.

And while on the subject of camp-fires, it is definitely worth visiting the town of Cody, a few hours drive out the other side of Yellowstone. Named after Buffalo Bill Cody, this is a real Wild West town. After eating beans, barbecued chicken and corn muffins in a barn while a band of cowboy musicians played songs like “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and “Yippie-aye-ay”, we went to the local Rodeo, which really was exciting, and which brought even an old London geezer like me to my feet shouting ‘Yeeha!’ with abandon.


And talking of old geysers, one cannot make the trip to Yellowstone without a visit to Old Faithful, which lived up to its name. It was old – 17 million years old in fact, and it was faithful; it went off within three minutes of our arrival. However many pictures you may have seen, you cannot fail to be impressed as puddles boil and steam and suddenly, belching from under the ground with a hissing and rumbling sound, comes a jet of hot steam and water, ten, twenty, a hundred feet into the sulphurous air. Awesome for all age groups.

It was pretty useful having a thirteen year old boy around. I’d recommend taking one. Apart from getting the bendy sewage pipe out and plugging it into the drainage hole in the camp-site – which he got dad to do by not being very good at it first time – to a thirteen year old boy, an RV is what a slice of heaven will be like.

And, speaking as someone who usually considers an hour’s driving to be too much effort, I have to say that it wasn’t so far off heaven for this old geezer too. By the end of this amazing trip, I was happy to drive five or six hours in a day, as the open vistas on either side slowly changed. Plus in an RV of course, you can stop in a lay-by – next to a massive canyon – press your kitchen-expanding button and cook up a hot meal before driving on.