Tuesday, August 9, 2011

America's Best Idea

No, not the deep fried Oreo, but that is a close second. I am referring to the the National Parks. I caught the Ken Burns documentary on PBS the other night and was amazed to find out that Yellowstone National Park was the first national park anywhere in the world. Although the Shoshone people occupied the area for thousands of years, it was not until the 1800s that European explorers made their way to Yellowstone, and it was not until 1872 that it was officially set aside as a park under president Ulysses S. Grant. Hey, do you know who's buried in Grant's Tomb? Nobody. The former president and his wife's final resting place are within the tomb, but they are not buried so much as they are just sort of lying there, like any other tomb. I know that's a really old and not so funny joke, but I am a really old and not so funny guy.

Anyway, Yellowstone is 3,468 square miles, mostly located in Wyoming, but also in parts of Montana and Idaho. That's larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, just to give you a point of reference. In other words, it is really big. It's also located on top of something called the Yellowstone Caldera, and features over half of the world's geothermal features (geysers, hot springs, mudpots, etc.). Do you know what a "caldera" is? It's okay if you don't, I had to look it up too. It's a supervolcano. That's right, the first and largest national park is located on top of the largest volcano on the continent. Oh and it's active. Very active. Now call me an worrywart, but doesn't that seem like a really bad place to locate a park which attracts millions of visitors a year? I am assured, however, that should this thing every blow its cork, I wouldn't want to be around afterwards anyway. I guess there is a certain comfort in knowing I'd be immediately blown to pieces - should I be so unlucky as to be there on that day - as opposed to starving to death while choking on ash a few weeks later. Besides, it's the geothermal features that make Yellowstone so special.

The first stories of Yellowstone to come back east told of a land where "mud boiled, water spouted, and steam came out of the ground," and were immediately met with ridicule. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, wrote descriptions and made drawings of the place that led others to think he had perhaps hit his head or developed a drinking problem while out west. They started calling the place "Colter's Hell" and wrote him off as a crackpot. Of course Colter was right, and in the years after the Civil War, official expeditions were dispatched by the federal government to see what the heck was going on out there. They saw the geysers for themselves and a whole lot more. Hundreds of species of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles have been documented in the park, and unique species of plant life have been discovered as well. But Congress initially did not fund the park, nor put any laws in place to protect it from development. It was not until 1894 that laws were passed to protect parkland in Yellowstone and elsewhere. By that time a fair amount of damage had been done, but Yellowstone remains the largest intact ecosystem in the Earth's northern temperate zone, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. My refrigerator, on the other hand, is one of the smallest - but no less diverse - ecosystems on the planet. What can I say, I travel a lot... things go bad.

So as you may have gathered already, you can't really see all of Yellowstone in one trip. It's the kind of place you'll need to - and want to - come back to again and again. With entrances in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, you have lots of timeshare rental options. Jackson Hole timeshares in Wyoming and West Yellowstone timeshares in Montana offer the most choices and closest proximity to the five entrances to the park. WorldMark West Yellowstone is rated 5 stars by RedWeek members and is located directly across the street from WorldMark West Yellowstone, where you can see wildlife in their natural habitat. Looks like you can get a 2-bedroom/2-bathroom unit that sleeps 6 for $135/night.

Well, I am off to see Old Faithful. Despite stories to the contrary, Old Faithful does not erupt every hour on the hour, and you cannot set your watch by it. Nor is it the largest geyser in the world. In fact, it is not the largest geyser in Yellowstone. But it is the largest, regularly erupting geyser anywhere in the world. A visitor rarely has to wait more than 90 minutes to see an eruption, which will shoot boiling water up to 185 feet in the air. Back in 1882, troops under General Sheridan got the bright idea to stuff their dirty laundry into the hole between eruptions, using it as a giant laundry. When they did manage to track down their clothing afterwards, they reported that "linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds." It's stuff like this that led to protecting the park in the first place.

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