Fifteen miles south of Yellowstone, it stops snowing. Fifty miles and the temperature creeps above freezing. We decide things can only get better. The only way to go is South.
Below Jackson we follow the course of the Snake River for many a mile. It’s very pretty, burbling along on the left hand side and there are a fair few men in boats, fishing.
As we enter the Star Valley the weather improves, a lot. This is part of the Pilgrim Road, there are smart Mormon churches every few miles and the whole place looks prosperous. We decide there are worse places to live than here. The farmland is good, there are rivers and lakes plus a never ending bulwark of hills to give shelter in the winter.
An ancient shack, the Baker Cabin, is a reminder of harsher times. Back in 1889, Alonzo Baker and his eldest son, aged 10, were away, working, in Montana leaving his wife and six young children living in a tent. After living through a harsh winter with a baby and five other children, Mrs Baker decided to build a house. She hauled stones for the foundations, sawed timber and singlehandedly built the house we’re looking at today. It was the first house in the valley with a shingle roof and Marigold and I both agree we’d happily move in here.
Onwards we go, through swooping bends and steep hills and can barely imagine what it must have been like for those pioneers, with no proper roads and carrying all their possessions in a horse drawn wagon. They didn’t even have a sat nav, although that would be a blessing.
In Montpelier, we’re now in Idaho by the way – hard to keep up with all these States- there’s a museum of the Oregon Trail. A very pleasant woman dressed in period costume came over to us and offered a guided tour. ‘There will be a charge, but the tour consists of three to four hours so most folk think it’s worth it.’
Three to four hours? Marigold suddenly remembered we’d left the dog in the car and we shot out again. No, there isn’t a dog; he or she is a convenience for use in situations like this. Not sure either of us could take much more than 3 to 4 minutes learning about the Oregon Trail, never mind 3-4 hours.
Butch Cassidy robbed his first ever bank in this town. He has no other connection whatsoever to the place, but that hasn’t tstopped them making a big deal of it. Robert Leroy Parker was born in Beaver, a tiny little town in rural Utah in 1866. The Parkers were Mormons who’d emigrated from England and Robert, later to become ‘Butch,’ was the first of their 13 children. Just about everywhere you go around here, there’s a reference to Butch and the Wild Bunch. There’s also a great many guns and ammo shops.
We pick a hotel, one of three to choose from, by Marigold’s patented system: she goes in, asks about price and amenities and then makes a decision based entirely on whether she likes the person on reception or not. She may deny this, but the evidence is clear.
Tonight’s receptionist is lovely. She tells us we are in luck as her husband’s band will be performing live in the car park later.
I want to ask, ‘how much later’ and, even more pertinently, ’what time will they go home,’ but I’m reluctant to be regarded as a curmudgeon at this early stage. As Marigold says, they may be good.
Can’t fault their effort, or the effectiveness of the Marshall amplifiers booming heavy rock out over the car park, but they’re pretty dire. Their wives, girlfriends, groupies are setting up a camp under the trees. We’re invited to eat with them and the food is fantastic. They shut up shop at about eleven thirty and we enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Within a mile of leaving the next morning we see three skunks. We decide they’re best left alone.
We pass through Paris. I knew about the one in Texas, but not Paris, Indiana. It’s small but lovely and has a superb Mormon tabernacle.
We’re heading for Bear Lake and end up doing a full circuit as it’s so wonderful. It’s a big lake, about 109 square miles, and half is in in Utah, half in Idaho. A sign tells us it is termed ‘the Caribbean of the Rockies’ and as we drive along the northern shore we see why. The water is a vivid turquoise blue and very clear. The East shoreline, in particular, is very impressive with many expensive and luxurious homes.
On the far shore we reach a small cabin style café and stop for breakfast. The owners are Danish and we order their speciality, abelskivers, a traditional round pancake, like a ball. Delicious.
Leaving the lake behind, we’re off up a very steep hill – snow chains essential in Fall – and then we wind our way through one of the loveliest sections of the whole trip. The Logan River Meanders through a very narrow gorge with towering limestone cliffs on both sides and dense, almost vertical, forests. The River is no more than a babbling stream in most places, the sun is out and we’re loving this commune with nature at its finest.
After Logan, we reach Brigham and here we make another stop.
Brigham City was originally called Box Elder – it’s in the very pretty Box Elder County – but they changed the name in honour of Brigham Young, one of the legends of the Mormon church. There’s a tabernacle here, two of them actually, of course, ringed with flowers. Marigold is very taken with a neighbouring very attractive building. This turns out to be the town mortuary.
We walked Main Street where a big overhead sign says
‘Welcome to Brigham City, Gateway to the World’s Greatest Game Bird Sanctuary.’
Brigham is quite a big place, an important place, but still has a marked ‘small town’ feel to it. The shops don’t open until noon, there are photos of old time Brigham in many of the shop windows and then there’s Bert’s Café which comes straight from circa 1955. Bert’s is double fronted, can seat at least 150 on the leather look banquettes and serves food that pre dates any medical concerns about the effect in the body of vast quantities of grease, sugar and starch. The customers are wolfing it down. We have just coffee, with many offers of a free refill and soak in the atmosphere. The waitress tells us ‘shops don’t open mornings here; mornings are for doing chores.’ Fair enough.
Beyond Brigham lies Salt Lake City, where we’re booked in for tonight, but we decide we must make one more essential stop before we hit the big city.
The Great Salt Lake from which Salt Lake City takes its name is big. Very big. At present, it is about 75 miles long and 35 mile wide, making it the eighth largest lake in the World. It is salty because it does not have any streams leading out. Tributary rivers bring in small amounts of salt dissolved in their fresh water. Once this Salt enters the Great Salt Lake it can’t ever get out again. In shallow areas much of the water evaporates leaving the salt behind.
Great Salt Lake is what remains of Lake Bonneville; a great ice age lake 30,000 years old. Lake Bonneville was the size of Lake Michigan. It covered one-third of present day Utah and parts of neighbouring states. After the ice age ended the earth's climate became drier and Lake Bonneville gradually receded to form the smaller but still impressive Great Salt Lake.
To the west of the lake itself are the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats, a vast area beyond the actual lake surface where the deposited salt has baked into a vast flat plain. The Bonneville Speedway is an area marked out specifically for high speed racing. Sir Malcolm Campbell broke the World surface speed record here in Bluebird in 1935, just over 301 mph. Sadly, his attempts to break further records were to end in tragedy.
By 1947 John Cobb had raised the record to almost 400 mph, but the emphasis on sheer speed changed post war to that of new technology. Records are still being set here, nowadays the cars are rocket propelled, and a record speed of 630 mph was achieved here in 1970. In more recent times, record attempts have transferred to Black Rock Desert, near Reno in Nevada. Andy Green, a Brit, holds the current record, 760 mph, set in 1997.
We decided against making a record attempt today. Our hire car company may not be best pleased. We concentrated on exploring one of the islands.
Great Salt Lake is too salty to support fish but several types of algae live in the lake. Brine shrimp and brine flies can tolerate the high salt content and feed on the algae. Brine shrimp eggs are harvested commercially and are sold overseas as food for farmed prawns.
Within the lake are several islands. Antelope Island is the largest, over 42 square miles, and is approached by a 7 mile long causeway. We paid our ten dollar entrance fee and drove along the dead straight causeway. It’s called Antelope Island and there are antelope here. Technically, they’re North American Pronghorns, reputedly the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. We saw several, but they weren’t the reason we came here.
We didn’t see any bears, or wolves, during our time in Yellowstone. Not so surprising. The one animal we thought we’d see, but didn’t, was a bison. There are lots there, but they kept well out of sight when we were there.
In 1893, at the height of fears over bison extinction, William Glassman and John Dooly brought a dozen bison to Antelope Island in the hopes of establishing a herd. Their actions led to the creation of one of the largest and oldest publicly owned herds in the United States. Today over 700 bison live in safety on Antelope Island and, guess what, within five minutes we saw our first one. An hour later we’d seen at least fifty.
Seeing a bison close up is a little daunting. The bulls are six feet tall and massively heavy. They’re placid beasts, but given their size it’s best not to risk upsetting one.
Two visitors wearing outlandish shorts were cavorting in front of a big bull lying at the side of the road, waving their arms about and screeching. We loved it when the bison raised his head and gave a great bellow indicating his annoyance. The two idiots ran like the wind towards the safety of their car and drove off, I got the impression that if the bison had been inclined he could easily have overturned the car with them in it.
Marigold encroached with care and decorum, no arm waving here, and got close enough to study the bison at close quarters. We saw many others, on the beach, in the long grass, walking in stately fashion or taking their ease. Absolutely wonderful experience.
We drove to Bridger Bay where there is a beach. Many people were walking out to lie down in the salt water, secure in the knowledge that you will not sink. A woman wearing a full burka was amongst their number. We found it hard to imagine her stripping off and bobbing up and down in the water.
Just as an aside, Antelope Island, like every other protected ‘Park,’ is big on caring for the environment. Quite right too. Recycled water and waste is very ‘green’ and suits the nature of the island. When it comes to a call of nature, however…
We ‘paid a visit’ to a wooden shed, two doors signed as men/women/disabled. Inside was a round metal box with a seat, but no lid. No flushing option, it’s basically a hole in the ground where the ‘waste matter’ drops down about five or six feet. Woe betide anyone who drops their car keys or glasses down there!
We've experienced similar, and indeed even more basic facilities in North Africa, so we coped easily enough. The pair who vacated the ‘shed’ as we arrived were rather less sanguine about the experience. Much shrieking, waving of hands and generally carrying on. ‘Should have told us about this before I spent ten dollars on a ticket,’ one of them told Marigold. ‘I’m going straight home to jump in the shower. Imagine if I’d sent my child in there.’
Ah, the sensitivities of modern urban living. Antelope Island isn’t Outer Mongolia, but for some delicate souls, it may as well be.
An intriguing day, packed with interest. Definitely one of the best days of our whole trip. We’ve just arrived in Salt Lake City. The doorman at the hotel said the hotel was full, every room occupied, as there were three big conventions in the city and virtually every hotel was fully booked. Most of the people staying in this hotel this week were connected with law enforcement. ‘So, your bags should be pretty safe,’ the doorman said.
As we checked in, the receptionist said, ‘I can upgrade you to a balcony room, at no extra charge, would you like me to go ahead?’
Of course, we said yes. Our room had a big bed, a good sized bath and, oh yes, a balcony. The doors to the balcony did not open and the view from our window, across the balcony, was of a grey brick wall three feet away that reached up to the sky. It took a while before we were able to take a photograph as we were laughing so much.
There were no other rooms, the place was full, but in any case we never considered going back down to complain. In its sheer ridiculousness, the non-balcony completed our enjoyment of a great day. Laughter beats annoyance, every time.