The long road out of Yellowstone National Park

Young rams divert traffic on the Mount Washburn trail with their shameless we're-so-cute routine.

Young rams divert traffic on Yellowstone’s Mount Washburn trail with their shameless we’re-so-cute routine.

Note: It’s Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. I stumble blindly, searching for a way out of the darkness.
The above photograph was taken on July 11. Nearly three months ago. I don’t know what it is about me that so routinely gets lost in the murmuring forest of my own mind. When it comes to wasting hours, days, months and years, I am simply prodigious.
I am 50 years old, and I am a child.
At times like these, I try to free myself from the creeping tentacles of ennui by walking my blues away. I went out the door at Chez 531 and lost myself in the soothing balm of Indian-summer sunshine. Before too long, I had completed the 3.5-mile stroll to the Paoli branch of the International House of Bitterness.
I grew up a half-mile from here. My dad walked to the train station here every day to catch the Paoli Local to Center City. Nothing was so holy, wrote Christopher Morley, as the local to Paoli.
Maybe that explains why I come here with ever-returning fealty. There are no sweet-smelling lilacs along my route, I’ll tell you that.

Paoli, you have become fashionable in my absence.
Posh Paoli, I know you not.
Paoli is divided between Tredyffrin Township and Willistown Township. I sit in Tredyffrin; I grew up in Willistown.
Time was, Tredyffrin Township marked the fraying western fringe of the Main Line. You might put on Main Line airs in Tredyffrin, but your social betters to the east would likely mock you.
Assuming a Main Line pedigree in Paoli was like claiming Ivy League status at Penn. 
You’re better than Temple and Penn State and Villanova and Widener and Delaware County Community College, but you ain’t no Princeton, son. And good heavens, Muffy, don’t even mention Harvard.
To laugh, it is.
In Willistown Township, you had the advantage of being obviously déclassé. You couldn’t even be a pretender.
The times they have changed.
I was struck by what seemed the sudden proliferation of “Paoli” in the signs of businesses fronting Lancaster Avenue. Paoli is suddenly de rigeur.
Paoli Design. Paoli Plaza. Paoli East.
Paoli sells.

It’s 1.5 miles from my childhoood house to Paoli Vetcare, which sits on East Lancaster Avenue, an Ichiro Suzuki throw from the Daylesford train station. Paoli has annexed the no-man’s land between itself and Berywn.
Perhaps it is the other way ’round.

How the hell did this happen?
I crossed Lancaster Avenue and followed the back-country route that winds just north of the old Pennsylvania Railroad’s main line.

I am fascinated by this wondrous old maple on Bair Road in Berwyn, with its octopus limbs sweeping skyward in supplication.

I am fascinated by this wondrous old maple on Bair Road in Berwyn. Its octopus limbs sweep skyward in supplication.

I cut through the parking lot of Paoli Place North, an apartment complex formerly known as Colonial Towers.
By any name, this place floods my mind with fragmented memories. First I passed the ground-floor unit in building A where we stashed my grandmother, Josephine Stokley, for the final chapter of her life. She died in 1987, at age 81. I was 24.
Now, let me say Colonial Towers was not a great name for this place. The rectangular, brick buildings hereabouts ooze a barracks-like utilitarianism. There are no towers or turrets. No design flourishes whatsoever.
Paoli Place, though, tumbles from the mouth with gravitas. It lifts the nose and lowers the eyes. It is nouveau riche in a way that makes you think of old money.  It is saturated with je ne sais quoi, redolent of happy affluence. It makes the marketability meter sing.
Paoli Place is the place to be. And being here is within your reach, if you’re not still trying to recover from the beating you took in the recent economic unpleasantness. Why, at Paoli Place you can rent an award-winning, one-bedroom flat for just $1,175 a month. 

Outside the name, and the rents, not much has changed. Paoli Place North is owned by Westover Companies, which claims 47 properties in four states. Westover’s website boasts four decades of “award-winning residential communities.”
I’m not kidding. This recalls the wonderful line from “Annie Hall,” uttered by a bemused Alvy Singer during his Los Angeles visit:
“What’s with all these awards? They’re always giving out awards. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.”
But, whatever. Someday maybe we’ll all live in award-winning residential communities. You can bet your vanishing social security check that Paul Ryan won’t.

But back to 1987, when Colonial Towers figured prominently in the lives of the Wallingfords. Has a soap-operatic ring, don’t it? The Lives of the Wallingfords.
My grandmother reverie broke apart and dissolved as I walked by building H. My sister lived in building H, which was the reason for moving my grandmother here in the first place. Also in H: Mary Lou Canale and her son, Peter.
My sister met Peter. They sang James Taylor together, in a voice that seemed to flow from the mouth of James Taylor, and had an innocent little fling. That’s how I met Peter.

Our tortured friendship was born in building H. Somehow it has defied considerable odds and survived a quarter of a century of misunderstanding and recrimination.
Peter is sui generis.  (Goddamn me with the foreign phrases.) Malcolm Gladwell would have a devilish time explaining Peter Canale if you spotted him a $1 million advance and a 10-year deadline. I won’t attempt such a high-wire act now.
I grew to love Mary Lou. She was crotchety and salty and thoroughly lovable. I insinuated myself into the role of her bastard son. I even cooked dinner for her once. Peter was not so lucky.
My mom must have taken a dim view of his relationship with her daughter, because she has been pretty cool to him over the years.

My favorite Mary Lou moment occurred in December 1994. Cast into unemployment when the weekly where I launched my sorry newspaper career went bust, I was lucky enough to land a part-time gig as Santa Claus in a shack out front of the Paoli Hardware store.
Best job I ever had.
The hardware center, as we called Paoli’s original stripmall (now known as Paoli Shopping Center), has experienced an upwardly mobile transformation of its own. Walgreen’s has moved in. The beer distributor and bar/restaurant are gone. The hardware store itself is now owned by Ace.
The hardware center is now overrun with upscale “specialty” shops. Talbots. Chico’s. 
Jos. A Bank. The Loft. Then there’s Olly, a shoe store for babies, toddlers and small kids. Clearance items aside, you can’t buy a pair of shoes at Olly for less than $34.95.
There’s a store devoted entirely to lacrosse. Lacrosse! That’s really all you need to know about the new Paoli. One Internet cynic described lacrosse as “the official sport of entitled white kids who don’t want to be thought of as entitled white kids (but still actually do).” So, there.
Here in the new and improved Paoli, even the barber can’t resist putting on airs. Gentlemen’s Choice, is the shop’s name.
My proletarian leanings notwithstanding, I’d come back here and impersonate Santa in a second. 
If the devil offered me the chance to travel back to 30 and don the red and white of old Saint Nick one more time, I’d have to speculate upon the worth of my soul.
Peter liked to stop by the Santa shack and slip me a pill bottle fortified with bourbon. What a cliché. Boozing Santa.
It was never enough to get me good and pissed, but it was fun. If any now-20-somethings had their olfactories assaulted by the foul stench of whiskey while sitting upon my knee, I am sorry.
One gray afternoon, Peter showed up with his mom. A piercing chill penetrated my padding. I blew on my hands and rubbed them together in search of meager warmth. I was glad to see him.
Mary Lou went shopping. He visited for a spell before slipping off to parts unknown. A while later, Mary Lou came to Santa’s shack looking for her lost son. I heard her caterwaul, put down my paperback copy of “Macbeth” and went to see what she was on about.
Mary Lou just looked at me. Frustration boiled in her eyes. She wanted to know where the hell Peter had gotten. The red suit, the phony beard, she didn’t see them.
As I repositioned the pillow beneath my guise, she cut loose.
“Jahhhn!” she screeched, “where the hell is Peter?”
It was downright cinematic.
All these things have slipped into the voracious maw of eternity. As we all must. My grandmother. Mary Lou Canale. Colonial Towers.
Now we live in an a Paoli Place of the mind.

bedlamA half hour ago, “Lost in the Supermarket” came on Starbucks radio. It is hard to rock out to the Clash with any sort of self-righteous defiance when the whole place is awash in irony.
I am lost in the Starbucks; I can no longer work productively. Joe Strummer, please take a posthumous, underground roll.
By the way, Howard Schultz, you are still a smug, witless prick.
Laugh if you will, Howie. Me drinking your overpriced coffee and calling you witless. Bedlam awaits you, no doubt.
Anyway, back to Thursday, July 11. We were due to meet Blind Charlie in Philipsburg, Montana, that night. It’s 200 miles from West Yellowstone, Mont., to Philipsburg.
It was late afternoon by the time we managed to extricate ourselves from the awesome blandishments of Yellowstone National Park.

yellowstone2

Our exit map, from Indian Creek Campground to West Yellowstone.

Thursday, July 11, Yellowstone National Park
Banking on old Charlie getting a late start on his journey from Bremerton to Philipsburg (because he’s always late), and greedy to magnify our Yellowstone experience, we took the circuitous route out of the park, pausing along the way to hike up 10,243-foot-tall Mount Washburn.
When we had reached the summit and returned to the trailhead, we still had a long way to go get out of the park. We stopped at Canyon Visitor Center, where we collected quarters because Metro PCS, our cell provider, has a massive dead zone in this part of the country. Then we drove through Madison Junction and out of Wyoming and into West Yellowstone Montana.
Only then did we complete our 90-mile exodus from America’s first national park and wrap up our impetuous, ill-conceived and outrageously prodigal five-national-parks-in-six-days whirlwind. Burning a gallon of gas every 12 miles, we toured a thousand-mile circuit that took us to Rocky Mountain National Park on Friday, Arches on Sunday, Canyonlands on Monday, the Grant Tetons on Tuesday and Yellowstone on Wednesday.
Future generations have my apologies. That starts with Max, who likely will face environmental, financial and social road blocks.
The tale of the tape is not pretty. And it doesn’t even consider the several occasions on which we got absurdly lost, missed turns and added a ton of unnecessary miles to our itinerary.

From Grand Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park to Yellowstone, we traveled 1,067 miles in six days. And that's not counting all the times we got lost.

From Grand Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park to West Yellowstone, we traveled 1,067 miles in six days.

I don’t have the time or inclination to delve into the whole national park scramble now, except to say it was ineffably stunning and inevitably inspirational. We hiked about five miles a day, and Max never faltered. He wavered, but he never quit.
The visual highlight of this odyssey within an odyssey came on our Mount Washburn trek. Kaleidoscopic fields of wildflowers, insouciant bighorn sheep and outrageous vistas challenged the poverty of our eyes.
Like Elizabeth D. Wickes did in 1879, we encountered a dirty snowbank near the summit. We also couldn’t resist the lure of a snowball fight in July. She wrote:
“We met the line of perpetual snow – it was very dirty, the snow, not the line, and we played snowball while we picked bluebells to press in our notebooks.”

We didn't stop to pick flowers, but we couldn't help but admire their kaleidoscopic wildness.
We didn’t stoop to gather a bouquet of lupine and yellow violets, but admired their beauty nonetheless.

What with global warming and fracking and the Keystone Goddamn Pipeline and China’s madness to outAmerica energy-mad America, who knows how many more opportunities we’ll get to throw snowballs in July. So throw them we did.
It was thoroughly light-hearted, though. No one got hit in the side of a face with a slushball.
Which reminds me: Remember a time when Bill Cosby was just a funny-as-hell comedian and not a cultural spokesman, corporate pitchman and churlish scold?
Yeah, those were the days:

You can tell the “snowball fight” was a timid affair by the mere sight of Becky letting one fly on the road up Mount Washburn:

We reached the summit and congratulated ourselves with a poor man’s feast of off-brand hazelnut-chocolate spread slathered on name-brand crackers.
We sat on a weathered bench and reposed with other trail-weary wayfarers. We gazed with stupid admiration at the rugged canyon the Yellowstone River had carved in the Hayden Valley.
Max may have lost his love for Alvin & Co. but still loves chipmunks. The antics of the tower’s rodent performer, which scurried in and out of view in a frenetic search for low-hanging crumbs, delighted him to no end.
To the naked eye, at least, little has changed since 1870, when the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition surveyed the region. They christening this mountain in honor of Henry Washburn, a onetime Civil War general and U.S. representative.
His partner, Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, was vexed by the nettlesome problems Washburn’s majestic panoramas presented to the literary-minded traveler. The view from here, he wrote, lies “beyond all adequate description.”
Undaunted, he did his best to describe it.

The fire tower chipmunk makes a break from captivity.

The fire tower chipmunk makes a break from captivity.

When Doane’s eyes fell upon the staggering vista we now beheld, the geologic wonder of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone dealt him another pang of humility.
It’s easy to see why.
The this-awesome-scenery-beggars-description feint is a popular fallback option. I have employed it on too many occasions.
“The mind struggles and then falls back upon itself despairing in the effort to grasp by a single thought the idea of its immensity,” Doane wrote.
And here we were.

The point man of this bighorn triangle appears unfazed by our presence.

The point man of this bighorn triangle appears unfazed by our presence.

I stuffed our food and water into my pack and took one last look about the landscape, which extended in dazzling grandeur above the rugged canyon walls that rise above the Yellowstone River and beyond Hayden Valley and Mount Sheridan all the way to the spectacular Tetons.
It was a lot to take in. Beggars description, it does, especially if you lack the knack for lyrical nature writing.
We began our descent, drinking in sloping fields teaming with lupine and yellow violet. In 10 minutes, we ran into a detachment from the herd of bighorn sheep that scampered on the flanks on our way up. These sheep blocked trail at a 180-degree salient. Hikers coming up the trail cut across the meadow, tromping wildflowers in an effort to allow these bighorn sheep a little privacy.
We paused, grabbed the camera and went a little crazy on the shutter. Then we shrugged and joined the meadow-stomping parade, sparing flowers when at all possible.
Way out west, in the variegated splendor of the national park system, nature occasionally presents you with photo-ops that even a ham-handed shooter is hard-pressed to mess up.
Like, ewe, check out this public display of maternal affection:

And on and on.
We later learned bighorn sheep can get belligerent if you catch them in a foul mood. I tried to give them a respectful berth, let’s face it, I didn’t. I cut the buffoonish figure of agape tourist, stopping in my tracks and daring wildlife to move me.
They didn’t.
Maybe we were just lucky.
The show continued most of the way down. Once we’d lost contact with the rams and ewes of Hank Washburn’s mountain, we ran into this feller.
Get a load of this preening rodent. What a shameless ham:

It's the Marmot Show!

It’s the Marmot Show!

Not surprisingly, when we reached a trail junction near the bottom, we took the wrong path. Max pointed this out to us. Becky disagreed. I wasn’t sure.
As we continued down the wrong-way path, Max grew indignant. And angry. He wailed and moaned. “We’re going the wrong way.”
In 200 yards or so, we realized he’d been right all along.
We made it back to the Behemoth in another five minutes. The wind picked up and threatened to relieve the door of its hinges.
We still had a 50-mile drive to make before we got out of Yellowstone. I wondered where Charlie was. I hoped he hadn’t gotten on the road too early. Couldn’t happen, I thought, but my stomach disputed me.
The sun began its descent on Yellowstone, suffusing it with a spectral glow. It would be another five hours, at best, before we got to Philipsburg.
We made our way down the loop road and turned off at Canyon Visitor Center. We got a couple Christmas gifts. I got some quarters back in change. I put four of them in one of two pay phones out front and dialed Chuck’s number.
He answered. He was already in Montana, on the outskirts of Missoula. He was at most two hours out of Philipsburg.
We better get going.

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