Martins most excellent adventure. 1st installment.
It’s ten to eight in the evening. Across the expanse of a slate blue lake, the sun is slowly edging its way down closer towards the jagged skyline of pine forest that carpet this corner of Idaho. The sounds of the radio are being drowned out by the constant drone of the concrete covered interstate, through the noise I can hear an advert for a bank that offers concessions for US military personnel. Martin, one of our UK sales reps had done such an excellent job at immersing himself in US culture, short of turning up in a Stetson, that we’d decided we would name our Impromptu road trip back north after him. Martins most excellent adventure was in full swing.
Fuelled by an unhealthy mix of M&M’s, Coca-Cola, Barbecue-Flavoured crisps, Snickers bars and the occasional Twix we had been on the road for nearly 36 hours. Crammed into a Chrysler Astra van, Craig, Josh, Martin and myself were on our way back to the home of Mountain Equipment Inc. We’d covered a solid thousand miles, visited the states of Utah, Wyoming, Montana and now Idaho and were still some 350 miles from journeys end in the north-western corner of Washington State.
Just a few days earlier, we had all been in full swing at the USA’s major outdoor trade show, Outdoor Retailer, which unusually for something stateside is, for once, a smaller affair than its European cousin. Protected from the searing desert heat outside, we went about our business in the ‘Salt Palace’, managing to squeeze in some 50 odd appointments from our 30 by 20 foot patch of ground, which was the temporary hub of all things Mountain Equipment, running through our product lines with prospective retail accounts, journalists, bloggers and the mildly curious.
In the evening we would escape the metropolis of Salt Lake City and head up to Park City, some forty minutes drive to the East. Once a mining town, this small town on the edge of the Wasatch mountains is now more famous as a major ski resort and home to the 2002 Winter Olympic bob-sleigh run and ski jump. The remnants of the old town still remain, with a crowded mix of highly colourful, small wooden buildings lining the main street surrounded by an ever increasing number of Condo’s, apartments and houses. Hard-Up miners and settlers have given way to those with the money to live in this now affluent ski resort and a steady throng of tourists.
The Wild West
Heading out on I-80 towards Evanston and the state-line, we left Park City on Monday morning. Wyoming would then beckon, mile after mile of the mid-west, only occasionally punctuated by small towns. Each one guarded by a sign detailing its population and elevation. None were bigger than 500 or so people, most were considerably smaller. In between were dotted farmsteads and ranches, dry brush-land smattered with the occasional intense burst of lush green grass from the huge irrigation systems that are the life-line to those making a living from this wild land. It would be nearly 5 hours before we reached the first big town, another major mountain resort, Jackson Hole.
Entering from the South it is easy to question what makes Jackson Hole so special. Travel just a few miles further North and as the forested hills give way to an expansive plain and the jagged peaks of the Teton mountain range come into view, there is little to doubt. Jackson is a wonderful town but it happily plays second fiddle to the natural wonder that surrounds it. Running along a geological fault line, the Teton mountain range was formed during a major uplift a good few million years ago and they’re still growing, rising straight up from the valley floor to over 13,000 feet. At its base, a flat valley floor that is home to the National Elk Reserve and to the North, arguably the most famous national park in the world, Yellowstone.
I’m not sure the herds of Bison, Grizzly Bears or Wolves make much distinction between the Teton National Park and Yellowstone but to help us humans there’s a big sign and ranger post. Like all National Parks here in the USA you can’t just wander in, it’s tightly regulated and you have to pay.
It was late afternoon by the time we made our way into Yellowstone National Park, we didn’t have much time but Craig was determined that we would at least drive through the park and experience what we could of this amazing natural wilderness. Amazing is an over-used word but not for Yellowstone. We stopped briefly at Lewis Falls, glimpsed Osprey hovering in the thermals above magical river basins and caught a glimpse of the giant Yellowstone lake. Dinner was beckoning as was one final highlights of the day.
Turning off the highway I’d not fully grasped what a major tourist venue Yellowstone quite was. That was until we reached the site of what is probably the most famous Geyser in the world. Nestled amongst the forest, Old Faithful is just one of several Geysers that erupt from the bubbling thermal springs, but it’s the only one to erupt practically like clock-work. Every forty odd minutes, every day, super heated water erupts from the lunar like landscape into a sky-high fountain to the delight of the thousands of tourists that sit patiently on the boardwalks. Just a few hundred yards away, Old Faithful Lodge is a historic megalith of a structure, now joined by a modern visitor information centre and large hotel. It wasn’t quite the isolated, unspoilt natural beauty I was expecting but the lodge is in its own way, an impressive sight. It’s giant internal wooden structure looms impressively high, one of the finest timber constructions I’ve seen. Less than a hundred years old but looking like some medieval scaffolding, the raw outline of tree timbers reach high into the open roof, four of five storeys high.
By the time we sat down for dinner we had managed to miss Old Faithful twice. Reliable it may be but to the second it is not. Twice we had scampered across to the steaming, sulphurous mound to be greeted by the sight of dispersing tourists, all with satisfied looks on their faces. The next eruption was scheduled for 17 minutes past 9. It was our final chance to witness it before nightfall. As the light began to fade over Yellowstone, a quiet hue fell across the sulphurous landscape as the excited chatter of expectation grew. Slowly the rising steam gave way to bubbling water and then shortly after ten past nine, Old Faithful was true to her name, albeit a little early.
Earlier that week, talking to the many journalists who were wandering the exhibition halls of Outdoor Retailer, I’d been cornered by a journalist, keen to learn more about our mysterious British brand. What’s your USP? What makes you stand out from all the others? After 3 days of presentations I was beginning to feel a little jaded, I muttered something about the small details, the subtlety of design all too easily missed and a few other things that I can’t quite remember, but the reply back was that, without wishing to sound cliche’d, it was refreshing to see a truly authentic outdoor brand.
It was now 630 am, I was lying in my sleeping bag, in the open, on the edge of the Yellowstone National Park. Ten yards away, Josh who had been asleep, crammed into the van, was now thumping my climbing pack, trying unsuccessfully to silence the alarm on my mobile phone. It wasn’t the first time that week that I’d left my phone to accidentally wake someone else up. Under the fading stars, Craig, Martin and myself had been blissfully unaware of this electronic intrusion, only the stirring of the air as dawn broke over the horizon gave any indication that it was time to wake up. It was a scene from a 21st Western, blankets had given way to down sleeping bags, tethered horses had made way for a four-wheel drive van, only the Corale we were lying beside and the mountains in front remained unchanged. It wasn’t the usual standard of accommodation I was used to whilst travelling for work, but that night, it beat any modern, soul-less hotel. I hoped the previous weeks journalist would approve.
My sleeping bag was damp with a heavy dew as I did my best to wake myself. Craig was already doing his best to add further annoyance to Josh by tapping on the steamy van windows. Across the valley, the white steaming mound of Mammoth Springs could be seen, looking more like some industrial intrusion billowing unknown toxins into the sky, it was actually another of Yellowstone’s geological natural wonders. Sooner or later, this entire geological crater will erupt, and wipe out much of what can now be seen, and begin another chapter in this constantly evolving landscape. Luckily all was quiet this morning, other than a steadily increasing number of tourists. We packed away our things and readied to leave Yellowstone.
A proper cup of tea
Sitting down for breakfast, Martin was showing enormous British reserve as he attempted to define the word ‘Hot’ to the hostess. I thought i drank a lot of tea but Martin surpassed even my best efforts. His first pot of tea had arrived in a usual luke warm state and he was keen to help this little diner in Gardiner become possibly the only one in the state of Montana trained in the art of serving a proper cup of Yorkshire Tea.
He was making steady progress as the second pot arrived with our breakfast. Grasping the pot to wait for that tell-tale sensory sensation of heat, he grasped it for slightly too long before realising a further round of training would be necessary. For a nation who had introduced us to warnings of hot water in their beverages, Luke warm, weak tea was a hard one to fathom. I opted for a warm, brown liquid resembling coffee as I tucked into my bacon and egg.
Big Sky and Prolite Mountain Gear
Back on the road, we head north along the Yellowstone river into the state of Montana. Expanses of thick forest had given way to wide open mountains, grass and broken woodland. This was the Montana I was expecting, this was big sky country.
We headed north and then West towards Bozeman, a growing college town on the edge of the Bridger mountain range and home to one of Mountain Equipments first supporting gear shops in the USA, Prolite Mountain Gear. Bozeman is an attractive town of some 40,000 odd residents, modest brick buildings, boutiques and art shops mark the makings of a town that’s got plenty of life in it. And so too has Brad, Prolite’s general manage. A larger than life character in every respect and passionate Montana resident. It’s not difficult to see why.
Within 20 minutes of the shop is some great climbing, both in summer and winter, great skiing, great fishing, great rafting. How anyone has the time to a run a shop in these parts is beyond me. Come the winter, they run demo evenings every Wednesday where you can turn up, grab some boots and tools and go find some steep ice. It’s little wonder they have seen rapid growth in their relatively short history, the place just oozes enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors.
Brad was keen to go and show us some of his beloved Montana but sadly on this occasion time wasn’t on our side, we still had many hours of driving to go. So after a quick 45 minute tour of the shop which included a look around their workshop where a spirited staff were making and modifying bits of gear to their own requirements we were on the move again.
We headed West towards Butte (or butt as Martin had decided to call it), once one of the copper capitals of the world before continuing Westwards towards Missoula, the administrative centre of Montana and home of the University of Montana. Cruising along the interstate through the sweltering summer heat, Butte would be an easy to forget place were it not home to one of the largest open cast copper mines in the world.
Anywhere else and it would have overwhelmed the landscape but here in an endless sky it was just another hole in the ground that had brought considerable wealth and prosperity. Guarding its deep cuttings and levels was a network of lift towers that had served the deep shaft mining operations that ran in parallel to the open cast mine. It’s vast economic wealth attracted many immigrant workers from all over the world, including the UK, and is apparently one of the few places where you can buy a Cornish Pasty in the USA. It also brought huge environmental damage, and vast sums of money have been spent in the past 30 years attempting to rectify it.
The French Connection and journeys end
We had been driving through Montana since early morning, it was early evening before we crossed the state-line into Idaho. As the sun began to lower in the sky, a raft of French place-names, Coeur D’alene being the most obvious, gave clues to the French Canadian fur trappers and missionaries who had settled here in the infancy of the modern state in the early 18th century.
We were cutting through our densest forest since leaving Yellowstone and our flirtation across the Northern half of Idaho was a relatively short lived affair. As darkness fell we reached our final state.
Washington is one of the most mountainous states in the US but on its Eastern side it’s a vast semi arid plain. We drove through Spokane, a rather plain and ordinary looking town that serviced the agricultural industry in this corner of Washington as well as being home to Mountain Gear, another of our supporting US retail partners. It wasn’t quite like driving across the M62 but the high moor-like landscape had certain similarities as we passed dinky sized combines carving their way across vast expanses of wheat fields.
As the darkness finally swallowed up any trace of remaining daylight we began our descent from the eastern plains towards the vast Columbia river, one of North America’s great waterways. Draining a vast basin of the North-Western United States and cutting a great chasm through Washington state it marked the gradual climb back towards the Cascades. We could see little of its enormity other than a dark snaking outline some half a mile wide as we crossed the shadowy outlines of Vantage bridge. Ahead only a series of warning lights that traced across the night sky revealed a vast network of wind turbines.
Climbing up along he Snoquamie pass we had reached the Cascades, the mountain chain that dominates this region, that runs from Oregon right to the Canadian border and that signalled the nearness of journey’s end. It would be another hour and well past midnight before we reached Stanwood, our final destination an hour or so to the north of Seattle.