Western USA – Idaho and Montana

Western USA – Idaho and Montana

Come morning it was still grey and rainy. We packed up the site and made our way to the airport; once again, the taxi driver had strange world views and was not afraid to share them. We took off and climbed through gaps in the cloud, ending up above a scattered layer crossing the Grand Canyon. On the other side it became clear that we would not be able to get through to Marble Canyon; things were very slightly better to the Northwest so we made our way 50 miles towards Colorado City, Arizona.

North into Utah

At Colorado City, not much was going on. The airport manager welcomed us by turning on the lights, which until then had been off, and provided his Garmin 796 to us to view the weather using the XM satellite connection. We watched for an hour or so, and determined that our best chance was to head West and try to hook around the weather, so off we went. It soon became obvious that we would not be getting to Idaho today. The cloud was solid around St George, Utah, so we landed there and found adjoining rooms in a comfortable motel in town for the night.

For dinner, we headed to the Black Bear Diner, just a few minutes walk from our rooms at the Crystal Inn. The portions were, as we had been warned by the shuttle bus driver, enormous. As usual, Rowan and I selected exactly the same meal but we were both defeated by the obscenely large chocolate desert. We got chatting to the people from the table next door on the way out, and it turned out that two of them were Elders in the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). They gave us a lift to their temple visitor centre to show us around.

At the temple we were shown around by a number of Elders and others, including two girls who were there in a “mission” from Germany. We were treated to a recital by the large Jesus Christ statue (despite the badges proclaiming the Elders to be Mormons, and the talk about the Church of the LDS on the way there, Keiko only realised they were Mormons once the Jesus Christ statue started speaking), and then shown around by another of the Elders. We were each presented with a copy of the Book of Mormon in our respective languages, and given a lift back to the hotel by a further set of friendly Mormons.

The next day still saw some remnants of low cloud around, but on the whole the sky was clear and sunny. We took off and headed North towards our final destination of Yellowstone, but before we got there, many treats were in store for us. After a couple of hours we decided to stop off in Ogden just north of Salt Lake city, which has a restaurant on the field. We informed the controller of our change of intentions, and he asked if the reason was for an emergency. We informed him that no, the reason was for breakfast.

Rowan made by far the best choice; Keiko and my pancakes were mediocre while Rowan’s omelette and hash browns were frankly magnificent. We took off again and continued North towards the Idaho Potato Museum. On the way we realised that we were flying just miles away from Preston, home of “Napoleon Dynamite”. It was of course essential to land here, and so we did, Rowan excitedly taking photographs of everything and proclaiming it to be just like the movie. The runway seemed a bit soft, and smelled of fresh asphalt; indeed, it turned out that we were the first aircraft to use the new runway at Preston since it was laid the previous day. We just about managed to avoid sinking into the tarmac (although I did leave shoe prints on a particularly soft spot), and took off once more.

The route across Utah and Idaho to Montana

The Idaho Potato Museum turned out to be within walking distance of Blackfoot airport. So, we walked it, pausing only to take a variety of photographs with a large tank positioned at the entrance to the airport. A mile and a half later, we stood outside one of the highlights of the trip; it was all we had dreamed of. Inside lay the promised potato gift shop, and repository of potato knowledge and wisdom. On display were, among other things, the largest potato crisp in the world (which was not as big as expected), and a lot of photos of pretty girls modelling very large potatoes. Other highlights were the videos about the potato industry, and the wall of hundreds of different potato mashers.

We spent a while browsing in the gift shop, and were disappointed to find that only cartons of hash browns were available, instead of actual potatoes. The lady behind the desk came to our rescue and promised that if we came back after lunch she would have returned to her house and collected us several freshly dug Idaho potatoes. We went to lunch at the local fast food restaurant, the other side of the railway tracks. On the way we saw a large train coming and put a one cent coin down on the tracks to see if it would be flattened. The train stopped. We went to lunch; happily, while we ate, the train started again and we collected our very flat coin on the way to collect our very tasty potatoes.

On the way back to the airport, a lady cycled past and commended us for walking. She handed us a leaflet on survival and outdoorsman-ship. As she cycled away, she left us with a passing comment; if we ever got into trouble, the Church of the LDS would help us out. Yes, the very friendly Mormons had caught up with us once again.

We arrived at Yellowstone in the late afternoon and were shown to the campsite. It was perfect, nestled among the trees with bicycles available to be borrowed, and little carts for our load-master to carry our camping gear to the chosen site. We organised a rental SUV for the next day (after promising that we would not dream of driving it off of paved roads), and settled down around the campfire, built with wood we had found in a large stockpile at the edge of the site. It couldn’t have been easier!

We cooked toast for breakfast, surprisingly successfully for an open fire, and headed into town to the visitor centre to pay our park entrance fees. We made it through the gate into Yellowstone with almost no queuing and found that the park is surprisingly big; even to cover the main highways would take days, and hundreds of miles of driving. We made do with the main attractions; prismatic lake, Old Faithful, and the like, as well as visiting the famous Yellowstone Lodge.

That afternoon, we followed a forestry trail out of town and South towards Idaho for some mild off-roading to explore the area some more. The road was much better than that traversed by Nissan Versa the previous year, although just as dusty. We passed one pickup truck with a guy in the passenger seat who looked suspiciously like the guy we’d rented the car from at the Budget desk the previous day.

With our driving finished we headed into town to visit the supermarket and, it turned out, the “Shoot a real machine gun” range. Rowan chose a Kriss and an AK-47, and Keiko and I were each persuaded to try a pistol. Keiko turned out to be a remarkably good shot with .22 pistol! That evening a sumptuous meal of baked potato and campfire-baked salmon was prepared; certainly the best campfire food I have had to date. A local mouse agreed, joining us around the fire and polishing off the remaining baked potato.

Today was the day I’d been waiting for; time to drive 90 miles to Yellowstone Bear World. We headed South in our Chevy Traverse, out of Montana and back down the valley into Idaho. Signs to Bear World started about 60 miles out; the claims that it was “local” to West Yellowstone rang somewhat hollow. We paid our entrance fee, and entered the park, which turned out to be done in drive-through safari style. The first area showcased deer and bison, before we were directed through the gate into the main attraction; the bear enclosure.

Yellowstone Bear World is home to nearly 50 Grizzly and American Black Bears. They are all captive bred, with no bears taken from the wild. The bears are not kept in cages, but roam freely over most of the 125 acre expanse of the park. Having grown up in the park, they are completely unfazed by vehicles and go about their business paying no attention to the visitors cruising slowly by!

As well as the large animal enclosures, the park hosts a petting zoo (without any bears in it), and also offers visitors the opportunity to bottle feed a bear cub, which we naturally took up!

That evening we took the car to the car wash, to eliminate any evidence of our mild off-roading adventures, before dropping back in to the shooting range for Rowan to have a go on another selection of automatic weaponry! Living in the UK, he had to take his chances while he could, in a country with rather more personal freedoms.

We were up in good time the following morning, after another peaceful night’s sleep at the West Yellowstone Airport. The day’s flying would take us a long way west, to the Washington coast and the island of Friday Harbor. First, though, we detoured east to fly over Yellowstone and view some of the incredible sights, that we’d seen from the ground the day before, from the air.

Turning back to the west, we settled in for what was to prove a long flight. The original plan had been to stop half way to have lunch and stretch our legs. As it turned out, forest fires across Washington had led to such thick smoke around the area that the majority of airports along the route had visibility that was too low for us to safely land.

Northwest to the coast

We flew past several fires as we went, and could see fire-fighting aircraft hard at work. Given that we had plenty of fuel on board, the change of plans was an inconvenience and not a major problem, and we pressed on across the state to the beautiful San Juan islands where we’d be spending a couple of nights.

We landed at Friday Harbor and contacted the owner of the Bed and Breakfast that we’d be staying in. A few minutes later, they arrived to pick us up. It turned out nothing was too far from anything else around Friday Harbor. After unpacking and relaxing for a while, we walked in to town to have a look around and find something to eat. The town was founded in the mid-1800s and is a now a beautifully picturesque settlement of around 2,000 inhabitants, and a popular tourist destination.

Dinner complete, we made our way back to the B&B to meet some of the animals. As well as two dogs (who Keiko had addressed her initial booking email to, after some confusion about who was who in the photo on the website) there was a sizable flock of alpacas, and a number of goats. We spent an enjoyable hour or so feeding them until the sun started to set, and we turned in.

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