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Tucson Weekly Jellystone Ranger

'BooBoo To Yogi. Over?'

By Jeff Smith

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  SOMEWHERE WEST OF THIS LARGE, POINTY MOUNTAIN PEAK IN THE TETONS--I've got a bottle of Yoohoo and a bag of Chee-tos; the cruise control is set at 80 and "Peaceful, Easy Feeling" is pouring out of all four speakers. Life is good.

The sky is uncustomarily low and close for this part of the country, which is, after all, the wide-open spaces, Big Sky Country and all that.

Well, it's Indian Summer at these latitudes and elevations, and the remnants of Hurricane Isis are spending themselves in wind and rain and unseasonably warm temperatures...even into Wyoming and Montana. I'm making good progress through eastern Idaho toward West Yellowstone and the improbable topography of the jewel of the American parks system.

That sticky-uppy prominence alluded-to in the dateline is The Grand Teton, which is doubtless the most knock-your-dick-in-the-dirt sight the sore eyes of the first pale-skinned fur trappers to wander into Jackson's Hole ever beheld. The operative words for cross-country travel in these parts are:

"Holy shit!"

They come--unbidden--to the tip of your tongue or the tip of your brain at every bend in the blacktop, around every cluster of spruce or pine, each cliff wall and cataract, at numberless new and unexpected wrinkles in the earthly epidermis, until finally you become numbed to the surprise, delight, the shock of it all and enter some kind of giddy, amused alpha state. It reminds me of the first time I saw Disneyland as a child. Only way more Technicolor and Cinemascope. And if possible, more cartoonish. And larger. lots.

Up ahead there's a four-horse trailer behind a Chevy dually doing an estimated 76 mph. We've been swapping the lead since Pocatello. Every time I pull over to pee or check the map, he passes me: Every time something more stirring than a cheating song comes on the radio I pass him. The radio stations up here run either to Christian music set to '70s rock tempo, or classic rock and roll and country. For an exercise in cognitive dissonance try a medley of George Jones and The Cars, with Jeff Foxworthy monologues leading into the news.

The Chevy is in the slow lane and I cruise on by with a nod which he acknowledges...Or is he gesturing at the black and white westbound across the median? The one whose brake lights flash in my rear view? The one whose driver has a hat just like Smokey the Bear and who tells me--like I just bought the winning Powerball ticket--that he's only writing me up for 74 in a 55, instead of 77 (I must remember to get that cruise control recalibrated: I meant to be going 80) so it will just be a $53 fine and not $106 and double points. Gee, thanks. Have a nice day.

For the next 63 miles I stay within six miles per hour of the legal limit, and feel like a kid made to stay after school. Nuns driving vans full of orphans in iron lungs are passing me like I was tied to a stump. I don't suppose it makes any difference other than psychological, but it always lifts my spirits somewhat to be near a state line when I get a speeding ticket. Once you're into some other law dog's jurisdiction you feel like you've got a clean sheet and can crank up the radio and mash the footfeed again.

This of course is illusory when the state line you cross is just inside the gate to Yellowstone National Park, and a line of Hondas and Winnebagos as far as you can see is crawling along at well below 75, I mean significantly below, and looking and pointing at every roadside thing that moves. Or sits still. Don't these people understand that the eye and the brain are like a Kodak Brownie, and retain every image they see...whether at a standstill or 90 miles an hour? Hey, a tree's a tree.

And 99 drillion of the damn things are going to be seared into your consciousness when you leave Yellowstone, whether you cover the ground in 15 minutes or fart around until everybody backed up behind you is no longer young.

They've got pullouts along the roadways in the park, and encourage slower traffic to use them, but they have failed to properly define what constitutes slower traffic. The typical motorist on holiday seems to believe that 55 mph entitles him to keep on truckin' right along with the grown-ups. Until, that is, he spots some sort of fauna, and stops dead in the middle of the road, with a hundred other drivers and families just like him and his. I came upon one such convocation and imagined that there must be a wreck or a fistfight or maybe everybody was stopped to see if Mark McGwire was going out of the park with another one....Turned out to be a lone cow elk in a field, making noise like a seal.

Here was one confused ungulant surrounded by 47 bipeds with cameras in L.L. Bean garb. Suddenly I had this Charles Addams cartoon in my head: a herd of Land Rovers with cameras peeking from every window...and one lone, unnoticed pickup truck with a rifle barrel poking out the driver's side. I cackled, drove around a knot of parked SUVs and got on out of there.

A couple of miles farther down the road there was another grid-lock. From a distance this one looked more promising. There was smoke billowing in the middle distance where the oncoming traffic and our eastbound mob had got snarled together. Somebody's on fire, I thought, with a certain eager anticipation. Nor did my other senses contradict.

Smells like battery acid and burning tires.

And if it were South Central Avenue in Phoenix, or anywhere southeast of the TEP plant in Tucson, the EPA, OSHA and half a dozen neighborhood coalitions would be pitching a hissy-fit. Up here everybody in Birkenstocks is all clammy and rapturous over this fumarole. It's a geothermal thing: something between a geyser and a bubbling mudhole. Stinks like hell and probably destroys the ozone layer, but hey, it's Yellowstone Park.

And to tell you the actual true facts of the matter, since that big old fire burned down most of the woods in the part of the park, so you can really get a good look at all of these tourists attractions, the nearest urban analog you could name would be a Superfund Site just off the New Jersey Turnpike. If your metaphoric mind ran to the physiological, think in terms of multiple carbuncles...oozing, festering pustules.

But fascinating.

How they managed to get so many and varied a menu of geological grandeur and Divine experiments gone awry, and locate them all in one, albeit pretty good-sized, national park, passeth human understanding.

It's enough to make one believe in a power greater than oneself. Walt Disney, for instance.

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