Wednesday, 15 July 2015

America the Beautiful

Eighty Miles of Grass

I went to the United States to enroll in a Masters program in Computer Sciecne at Texas A&M Universtiy in August 1991. I was dazzled seeing the 747 that I flew in, amazed at Heathrow airport in London – it seemed like a city not an airport- and equally amazed by Gatwick Airport, where there was one plane landing or taking off every minute. I was hungry and cold in London, but every thing seemed so expensive, I didn’t buy any food. My uncle Varadarajan picked me up at Houston Airport and we drove to a small town College Station; I saw eighty miles of grass on that drive and that looked beautiful then.

College life was busy, cash-strapped, and restricted to where I could walk, unless someone took me along somewhere. I visited my mother’s sister, Ramani Chithi and her family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a Thanksgiving vacation, and the bridges over the Atchafalaya swamp and Missisippi rivers were the tourist highlights on that trip. Later, my thesis advisor at Texas A&M, Prof Swaminathan took me on a two-day trip to Los Angeles – I visited Universal Studios, while he attended a conference. Travel was few and far between during my college days, though I visited Baton Rouge and New Orleans once again, Galveston with friends, the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In 1994 I started working for a company in Phoenix, Arizona. And during the fourth of July weekend, I rented a car, drove 800 miles to visit my friend and AKCE alumnus Gokul Janga in Logan Utah, and then was drive another 400 miles to Yellowstone National Park. It was my first drive longer than ten miles in a car, and I took nearly 24 hours to drive the distance. My inexperience was most significant on the mountain curves, but I really enjoyed driving. I was caught in a lot of weekend traffic in Phoenix, and incredibly thick downpour, but the got the hang of driving in the rain too. I reached Flagstaff, had dinner, drove a little north, reached a small town, found the motels closed, and slept in the car for a few hours. Then drove through canyons (including sections of the Grand Canyon) and mountains and the long wide open plains of Utah.  Then one of Gokul’s buddies drove five of us to Jackson Hole.

A River of Boiling Water

Yellowstone is not merely beautiful, it is bizarre. It is a geological oddity, with geysers, and mud volcanos, and boiling rivers and sulphuric pools and terraces of boiling chemicals oozing all over the place. If a factory did the same, it would be vilified by environmentalists and citizens as evil and polluting, but when nature does it, people consider it beautiful. (Also true of underwater volcanic vents.) Theodore Roosevelt understood this and declared it a protected monument.

America has a passion for the road that the rest of the world may not quite understand or feel. In India, trains are the romantic means of transport; so too in Europe, I suspect.  In America one drives. Especially in the western states, where I lived for six years.


One reaches Yellowstone National Park from the Utah side by driving past the Grand Tetons National Park, which has two majestic peaks, lots of snow, sparkling lakes, and beautiful forests. The snow had mostly melted but it was cold and we needed our jackets in the night and early hours. We arrived too late to find a lodge, so we slept in the car, with the windows cracked open. One guy slept in a sleeping bag, outside, which would have killed him in the winter, but it was ok in July.

Yellowstone suffered  a forest fire in the 1980s and its effects were all too visible in 1994 when I visited first. There are several types of forest fire, some that just burn ground level vegetation, some that burn parts of the forest, some that burn everything. For some speices like pines, whose cones need intense heat to release and reproduce, forest fires are a necessary part of their life cycle.
We had breakfast in a wooden chalet, that looked it would fit in quite nicely in Switzerland. No shower. 

Oddment! Vapor! Sulphur! Bubble!

Old Faithful - the geyser (July 1994)
Yellowstone is a 80 mile loop by road. We drove to Old Faithful, a geyser – a somewhat predictable hot spring that was bubbling most of the time. Once every 75 minutes or so, it would erupt into an 80 foot fountain of steam, then subside after a minute.

We then drove over to some coloured terraces of sulphur and other subterranean chemicals pouring out of the ground, driving past a lonely bison walking along the road. We hiked along the trails between the oozing mud, on planks brilliantly laid by the US Forest Department! No words can capture the experience. Fumes and vapors rose and swirled about, a toxic natural sauna, surreal and sublime. 

We saw a few more geological oddities, driving around a few places, then went to the Montana part of the park for a lunch of pizza. After lunch, we drove over to the Grand Canyon of the YellowStone. Much smaller than the world famous one  in Arizona, but the stone was yellow, which gave the park its name, and it had a river running at its bottom, and a couple of waterfalls and absolutely beautiful views. We walked down a trail, saw a beaver dam, got sprayed by a small waterfall, walked back up and then drove further on, where we could view a waterfall from its top. The waterfall may have been about two hundred and the spray rebounded a hundred feet of the ground, glinting with the colors of the rainbow in the evening sun. 

The scenery everywhere was astounding, vistas of incomparably greenery and distance and majesty. I had three years with almost no travel in Texas and a month in the desert that is Phoenix, and had never really seen the wilderness in India, except on train journeys, so to me this was an unparalleled, incredible connection and communion with Nature, in the company of four guys cracking jokes and enjoying Ilayaraja’s music. We traveled back that night to Utah, and I drove back to Phoenix the next evening.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone July 1994

In September 1994 I moved to Seattle and in May 1995 I visited Yellowstone again with friends from Seattle, driving 800 miles then too. The big difference was  that I was a much better driver now, and this time I had a day and a half in Yellowstone, rather than 12 hours from dawn to dusk. The culinary highlight was strawberry pancakes for breakfast in a restaurant in the village of West Yellowstone. This time we stayed in a log cabin in a KOA lodge, and that night we took back a pizza and ate it by the side of a campfire under the Montana sky. Awesome. The geological tour was no different though.

We got to see much more of the boiling Snake river. Also the route from Seattle to Yellowstone, via the Snowqualmie mountains, over the very broad Columbia river, the Idaho mountains and most of the blue skies and large plains of Montana.

While living in Seattle, I did a lot of travel to mountains and volcanoes and lakes and ice caves and river gorges and seasides – Rainier, St Helens, Glacier, Sequoia, Crater Lake, Kings Canyon, Hoh rainforest, Olympic mountains, whitewater rafting in the Methow and Wenatchee rivers, but Yellowstone remains my favorite natural wonder in the Americas. Among other places, I hope to visit it this summer.

Travelogues

3. Vaishali 

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