Such A Savage Beauty

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From Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, seven days in seven of America’s mountain states

IT IS EARLY October in Salt Lake City and the blush-and-glow of Japanese maples, while not as pompous as the fall foliage along the East Coast, is a sight for sore eyes. The leaves cling to straggly branches, and sunsets to the horizon. Flaxen-haired aspens teeter in the wind. Many roads beckon. To the north-east loom the Wyoming Rockies and the geothermal surrealism of Yellowstone National Park. To the south, but alas, a day’s drive away, the Colorado River carves, as it has done for millions of years, at one of the most magnificent red rock canyons in the world. We vacillate between the two, but we can choose neither. Which is to say we choose both. America’s oldest national park, straddling the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, is about six hours out of Salt Lake City. The Grand Canyon will have to be reached via a packed Southwest Airlines flight to Las Vegas, where we will need to adjust not just our clocks, winding them back by an hour, but also our disposition. On a whim, we pick Sedona, an artistic little resort town in Arizona surrounded by piñon pines and sandstone formations, to make the transition from backcountry to the Vegas Strip. This is the story of our seven days in seven of America’s Mountain States.

It is easy enough to zip north on the Interstate 15 to the southern tip of Yellowstone National Park in five hours. But veer right to the US-89 and you won’t regret the slow driving and the two- hour detour, not for a minute. At Brigham City, named after Mormon leader Brigham Young who directed his followers in a 1,000-mile exodus to the promised land of Utah in the mid-19th century, the road begins to surge, snaking like a rivulet between rugged hills. On the gentler slopes of the mountainside, firs and junipers nod alongside maples that are yet breaking into colour. It is a two-lane highway and the passing zones are few and far between. In a rental Buick, we are happy to tail a posse of red Porsches through Cache Valley and Logan Canyon, a marvelous limestone outcrop that once lay at the bottom of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville. We coast along the length of another lake, a limpid blue expanse, shimmery like a summer cocktail even under a smudged sky. Ranches, raspberry fields and the Wasatch-Cache National Forest kiss Bear Lake’s flanks. A raspberry milkshake and several photos later, we are well on our way to Paris, a Mormon Pioneer town in Idaho that boasts a big sandstone tabernacle. Next stop: Montpelier, a town that basks in the infamy of Butch Cassidy and Sundance over a century after they robbed a bank here and rode away to an unknown afterlife. Here in the West, romance has been a staple ingredient of history, the adventures of frontier settlers who explored uncharted lands blurring into the latter-day portrait of the cowboy as a pop culture hero.

Wider country views usher us into Wyoming. At Afton, we pass under a large arch made entirely of interlocked elkhorn and linger in a souvenir shop modelled after a Western saloon. This is elk country, all the way into Jackson Hole, the southern port of entry to Yellowstone National Park through the craggy terrain of the Grand Teton range, which appears without warning, shooting up 7,000 feet over the valley. We check into Snake River Lodge, a property in the entertainment district of Teton Village named for the river that combs the valley between the mountains and the Continental Divide. A six-mile lurch down Moose Wilson Road, a slim, ill-kept path that is at the mercy of black bears this time of the year delivers us into the warm, informal lobby. Feeling somewhat ill at ease amid the wildlife chic of elkhorn chandeliers, wall antlers and deer area rugs, we drift off to dreamless sleep.

A cataract of fog shrouds the village in the morning. The scalding cups of wild orange tea I have gulped down turn to ice in my stomach as I wobble against the wind. But a hike in the Grand Teton National Park, along its meandering river channels and creeks, is irresistible. Cans of bear spray snug in our pockets, we pick a moderate five-mile trail that licks the southern shore of Jenny Lake before climbing to a heart- stopping view of a 200-feet cascade. Hours go by as we then walk the entire loop around the tranquil glacial lake, stopping to smell the pines, photographing cottonwood trees, spotting osprey, pronghorn deer and daring marmots. Driving north along the granite wall of the Tetons the next morning, we leave the big quiet of the park behind for the crowd-pulling thrills of Yellowstone. Gawking at the mountains, we nearly miss a red fox that makes a rare appearance across the road. After a full minute, the fox slinks away and trots to the sapphire waters of the Snake River. The sighting has set the tone for what will prove to be a very wild day in the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.

Here in the West, romance has been a staple ingredient of history, the adventures of frontier settlers blurring into the portrait of the cowboy as a pop culture hero

LEAVING THE CROWDS behind at Old Faithful geyser, we drive northeast to Lamar Valley, hoping to spot gray wolves, known to lurk here since they were reintroduced into the Park in 1995. Nothing could have prepared us for the Serengeti-like plains, the expansive, undulating savanna of gold around us, and floating in it the herds of bison and elk, unmindful of the intermittent human fringes along the road. We kill the engine, mile after gratifying mile. Once, we pull over behind a row of cars to watch through a scope a pair of floundering wolves trying to reclaim their morning kill—a large male elk. Minutes later, we spot our first coyote, stalking a herd of deer that don’t appear intimidated in the least.

I cannot help thinking that the one-to-one tangos of death in the wild are not nearly as dramatic as the gliding rhythm of communal life under the open sky. Watching a herd of about 50 bisons nuzzling the grass in the late afternoon sun, we are about to turn around when the largest of them amble towards us. They get closer and closer, until we can see their bulging sinews, their frazzled beards brushing the ground. This one moment has made all the driving worth it.

Day 4 has been set aside, predictably, to explore the geyser basins that are arranged in an ‘8’-shaped loop across Yellowstone National Park. The fumaroles in the Firehole Lake area of the Lower Geyser Basin, which we caught sight of on our way to Lamar Valley, seem angrier today, as though flaring at the slight. The Great Fountain Geyser erupts with a magnificent spurt that seems to wash the greys off the sky. A short drive away, the Norris Geyser Basin simmers noisily like a busy kitchen. Further north, steaming water cascades over the travertine limestone terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. Yellowstone’s dozen-plus geothermal areas tend to draw attention away from the rest of the landscape, like splatters of colour in a stark painting. And it is a beautifully layered painting, with rolling sage plains, almost incongruous patches of red Wyoming paintbrush, and mini-forests of spruce and pine typical of the Rocky Mountains. You need only get off the main road or climb a trail to experience the grandeur of the 3,500-sq mile national park and find your favourite spot. Mine is at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, a classic landmark over 20 miles long that plummets hundreds of feet to meet the Yellowstone River below. A one-way loop to the east of Canyon Village takes you to the rim of the park’s eponymous rocks, unveiling a magical view of Lower Falls hurtling 109 feet into the canyon. Tomorrow, we head south, towards another canyon 850 miles and two states away.

There is not a wisp of cloud in the sky as we drive southeast of Vegas towards Arizona, whizzing past Hoover Dam. At Kingman, we take a welcome 70-mile diversion along Route 66, the old diagonal highway that was the crucial link to the vast unexplored west beyond the Mississippi River. Crossing the towns of Valentine and Peach Springs before joining the I-40 at Seligman, the road is a sliver of history, dotted with old gas stations-turned-museums, 50s-style diners and general stores, and a Shell outlet that has been operational for a century. Cowboys once roamed these high-desert lands; saloons outnumbered other public houses in the dusty trading posts. Route 66 has long since ceased to be the mother road immortalised in The Grapes of Wrath, the lifeline that ferried dreams westward. Now it is a simulation by preservationists that makes for an entertaining diversion at best.

An hour later, we once again swerve off the highway, at Flagstaff, into the steep, wooded road that writhes through Oak Creek Canyon. It is sinuous, warranting a 25-mph speed limit in places. And so we arrive at Sedona, an unlikely oasis of urban sophistication in the Arizona desert. We are advised to carry a flashlight at night because of a recent crackdown on light pollution. We watch the sun set over molten-red rock, and call it a night after potato soup and rye bread sandwiches at the Wildflower Bread Company, a local favourite.

It is still early when we cover the 110-mile stretch to Grand Canyon Village. We intend to drive the length of the south rim in the shimmering morning light, but an urge to delve deeper takes us to the South Kaibab trailhead. The Canyon is not a text to skim through, but an experience to sink one’s teeth into. A series of sharp switchbacks takes us down the nearly vertical limestone cliff before levelling off at a viewpoint. Half a mile in, and several hundred feet below the rim, the rocks begin to spill their secrets ever so slowly. The Canyon opens up to the east, a great beast stretching its limbs. The sheer drop to the abyss is terrifying, yet there is no sign of the Colorado River. It is tempting to slide just a little further into the heart of the Canyon. At Cedar Ridge, we turn around, heeding the advice of rangers and bloggers who have warned against exhaustion and dehydration. By 10 am, the rocks glower in the sun and rugged peaks cast ominous shadows. A 54-mile drive eastward to Cameron on the lip of the park reveals features that make up the Canyon’s savage beauty. A majestic mesa, a glimpse of the river shrouded in soft shadow, a tree clinging sculpturally to a lone butte. The following day, on the long drive to Vegas, these memories stay with us, like a beloved song, like snatches of eternity. They have ruined me for Vegas, and for all holidays to come.