After two mostly excellent years, I have finally left San Francisco. I’ll write about my thoughts on leaving the US when I actually do, in a couple of weeks’ time. In the meantime, I’m embarking on yet another road trip, this time accompanied by my old friend Matt, and this time across the north of the US. Over the next twelve days, we will travel from the Mormon Mecca that is Salt Lake City to the Windy City of Chicago. En route, we will take in four national parks, a couple of big cities and Mount Rushmore.
With the contents of my apartment variously sold to colleagues, donated to Goodwill or squeezed into a handful of bags, I took a flight to Salt Lake City to meet Matt. We checked into an absurdly large hotel complex called Little America that was next door to an even more absurdly large hotel complex called Great America. A few blocks to the north was an enormous Mormon temple crowned with a large gold statue of the angel that Joseph Smith claims visited, surrounded by dozens of Mormon administrative buildings. 62% of the residents of Utah are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with 16 million across the world, so I guess there’s quite a lot of bureaucracy required to keep track of all those marriage certificates.
In my couple of years in the US, I’ve come across a few Cheesecake Factories, but never actually eaten in one because, well, they sound terrible. It sounds like a less versatile version of Waffle House, and dining in a Waffle House is one of the very worst experiences it is possible have in America. But Matt insisted that a Cheesecake Factory is not like that, and he was correct. This Cheesecake Factory was all wood panelling and chandeliers, with a spiral bound menu that had frankly too many options for them to have realistically been able to cook them all to any standard.
Anyway, we ate some food, but were too full to eat any of the cheesecake which, I like to think, was being prepared on enormous production lines in the back of this Cheesecake Factory. Matt wasn’t allowed a beer because he didn’t have his passport on him; I flashed my California ID and had a cider. As gripping as this story is, perhaps two paragraphs on Cheesecake Factory is quite enough.
In the morning, we began a 300-mile drive north towards Grand Teton National Park. It was a pretty uneventful journey up I-15, crossing from Utah into Idaho and then into Wyoming. After a short while, Matt spotted a sign for a Museum of Clean. It gave no further information and we saw no further adverts until we arrived there nearly 100 miles later. Entry was just $6 each, and in return we could enjoy the 75,000 square feet of exhibits dedicated to cleaning. There were at least two areas dedicated to old vacuum cleaners, plus a brand-new whole-floor exhibit called World of Vacuum Cleaners.
You might imagine that we were the only people stopping in small town Idaho to visit a museum mainly about cleaning floors and a little bit about cleaning teeth. Your imagination would be wrong. There were at least four other people in there, including a man who had lost his wife in all the excitement.
Standing proudly in the two-storey entrance lobby was what claims to be the world’s largest janitor. I take some issue with this statement. For a start, it was not a live janitor (enough, the pub lawyer in me might assume, for me to be able to demand a $6 refund). It was not even a statue of a janitor; it was a statue of the owner of the museum dressed as a janitor. Guinness World Records will be hearing about this.
Before I move on from the Museum of Clean (and when we did try to leave, the receptionist expressed some surprise that we could take in all of its delights in a mere 30 minutes), I’d like you to spare a thought for generations of school children in the town of Pocatello, Idaho. Every year, they’d be treated to the excited anticipation of a field trip, and every bloody year the school bus would pull into the empty car park of the Museum of Clean.
Grand Teton (as you will know from looking up naughty words in a French dictionary, this translates as ‘Big Tit’) is not the most immediately impressive of national parks, but its jagged snow-capped peaks and mirror glass lakes do rack up the likes on Instagram. You have to feel a little for Grand Teton, as it is located right next to Yellowstone, the oldest of America’s national parks and one of the most dramatic.
After an afternoon in Grand Teton, we stayed in a log cabin lodge in the no-man’s land between the two parks, the land for which was bought by a Rockefeller in the 1920s to prevent it being overrun with the crap motels and fast food outlets that normally emerge near national parks.
Yellowstone National Park was created back in 1872, long before Wyoming became a state. It sits atop a 40 mile wide supervolcano that last erupted 600,000 years ago. If it goes off again, it would spread ash across most of the West and Midwest, probably triggering a global catastrophe. A delightful side effect of this massive ticking timebomb sitting beneath Yellowstone is that it has generated a collection of weird and wonderful natural attractions on the surface.
The most famous of these is Old Faithful, a geyser that shoots 30,000 litres of boiling water up to 50m into the air with astonishing regularity. It’s possible to predict the next eruption to an accuracy of ± 10 minutes, which makes it the perfect tourist attraction for the National Park Service. Every couple of hours, the vast car park fills up with hundreds of cars, the inhabitants of which waddle over to the viewing boardwalk that surrounds Old Faithful.
It constantly spews steam with varying intensities and, as the eruption approaches, little spurts of water too. As the predicted eruption time comes and goes, a few members of the crowd grow impatient and wander back to their cars. Then, with only a couple of minutes left in the predicted window, an enormous plume of scalding water shoots high into the air, the park rangers breathe a sigh of relief and go off to update the sign for the next eruption.
By far the most spectacular of Yellowstone’s attractions is Grand Prismatic Spring, a cobalt blue pool surrounded by a muddy spectral halo. It’s the kind of view that, if you’d seen in a photograph, would assume was the product of some heavy photoshopping, but it really does look that stunning.
There are frequent danger signs in Yellowstone, alerting us to the hazards of interacting with bears and bison. It is home to both grizzly and black bears, the former of which is more aggressive than the latter. Unfortunately, your calculation as to quite how much to fill your trousers as a bear gallops towards you is complicated by the fact that both flavours of bear vary in colour from blonde to black. The black bear has a slightly longer snout, you think to yourself, as it swings its paw across your face. In your final moments of consciousness, you try to decide whether the claws could be described as ‘short and dark’ or ‘long and light’.
After two years of being scared of encountering bears, of either variety, in national parks across this country, I finally saw one in Yellowstone. We hit a traffic jam, which turned out to have been caused by dozens of cars stopping to have a look at a bear with light brown fur about 50m away in the woods. I positioned myself behind a defensive line of other tourists and snapped some photos through a long lens.
Yellowstone is also home to bison, elk and deer, but these don’t scare me quite as much as bears.
We exited Yellowstone through the eastern road towards Cody, Wyoming. The scenery here was beautiful in a very different way from the geological peculiarities of the Yellowstone caldera. The road meandered alongside Yellowstone Lake, before following a river that carved through rugged landscape that felt more like Scotland than the Wild West. A bright double rainbow bridged the valley as we drove further into Wyoming, the emptiest state in the USA.
This is a state so unpopulated that it only qualifies for one congressman (California has 53). 500,000 Americans call it home, 1% of whom reside in the small town of Cody. It is, in many ways, a classic edge-of-national-park town of motels, gas stations and diners (delightfully chain free), but in between these were a few reminders that Wyoming is the old west. Spaghetti westerns may have been filmed in California, but Wyoming is real cowboy country. We entered town past a rodeo (sadly we arrived too late to watch it) and stayed in a motel across the street from a shooting range.
Next time… Wyoming to South Dakota, via Montana and North Dakota.