American Sabbatical 024: 9/29/96

Granite Creek

9/30... Granite River.

We shook ourselves awake at dawn in a freezing wind along the Big Sandy. No wonder they call it the Wind River Range. Even with all our winter clothes on and our morning porridge and mug-up in hand we were shaking. Didn’t take us long to saddle-up Festiva and gallop down that dirt road to the highway.. watching antelopes jumping the barbed-wire fences as we pulled our plume of dust. No more camping in the high country, we swore.

Once we’d thawed ourselves with Festiva heat and road coffee, we were almost ready to take off a layer or two. By the time we hit Pinedale the temps were pushing 80, and our spirits were rising, too. In Pinedale we visited the Mountain Men Museum, yet another new addition to Wyoming’s tourist attractions. At least the building and displays were new, and quite attractive. The presentation was much too text-heavy (I should complain?), and the artifacts a bit scarce, but it was very professional, informative, and the staff ready and able to answer any questions. All very low-key.

Mountain Man
(Alfred Jacob Miller)

We might have given yet another museum a pass.. our ability to absorb all this local historic juice is getting squeezed thin.. but one of my quests was to find Pierre’s Hole, site of the 1832 fur trade rendezvous. It seemed as if half of the journals I read last year were by men who were in Pierre’s Hole for that pow-wow. Wyeth, Bonneville, Carson, Etc., Etc. And I’ve been unable to locate it on any map. One journalist said that the three Tetons were in sight there, so we must be close as we approach Jackson Hole. Well, the Mountain Man docents couldn’t pinpoint it on a contemporary map, but they could come within a couple of miles, so we’re homing in.

Which leads to a digression about mapping. (We’re getting expert at digressing on maps.) It is almost impossible to perceive rivers and mountain ranges on contemporary maps, road maps in particular. Even the geodesic survey maps don’t read topographically for me, too many squiggly contour lines that don’t cohere. The maps bound in with the 19th century travelers’ accounts were river maps, sometimes showing the mountains and hills. They make sense to me. In those days the rivers were the roads, of course. Even out here in the open country where riverside going might not be the easiest, they guaranteed water (maybe potable) and maybe forage. Even though our horsepower has changed, those river maps still show the landscape in a way no modern maps do. This perceptual shift in how we conceptualize the landscape runs deeper than new road cuts. Our maps are now about political boundaries, place names, and the fastest way to get there. The rivers and hills still define the real estate, only we don’t see them, or think about them. Is it any wonder our rivers are sick, that there’s a water crisis, and our ecological consciousness is fragmented? As we travel, the pennies keep dropping about how this country is put together. That the Bighorn River rises in the Bighorn Mountains, for example. Geography isn’t rocket science, but trying to find topography on a TripleA map might convince you otherwise. A complete set of North American watershed maps would be a boon for this quest, and might teach us all how the country is threaded together.

Aspen & Granite
The ladies at the Mountain Men Museum were so well informed about the area, that was asked them about accommodations around Yellowstone, our next stop. They warned us that motel rates were “around $100”, and we choked. Our max is $40/night, and we haven’t had to pay that, yet. But, they said, there was a campground at a hot springs about halfway to Jackson we might be interested in. As you might guess, Peggy’s eyes lit up. Up was the keyword. The road to Granite Hot Spring was 9 miles UP a washboard dirt track, straight UP the mountains. The site was absolutely spectacular. We cringed for Festiva as she jolted over the rocky outcrops and shuddered over the corduroy, but once the bucking was over we were enthralled. We were all alone at a swimming pool built by the CCC (which makes it research, right?), with a panoramic view of lofty granite peaks, and that high altitude sun came slanting down on us. The temperature of the water was 98 degrees. Just about perfect. We did pas de deux sunwise in the pool like a pair of synchronous seals in a geriatric circus. Even the sulfurous air wasn’t excessive.

We pulled one another out of the bliss before we’d gotten too limp to move, and decided that maybe we COULD camp another night. Right there. So we did. Tried to draw mountains.. to capture the bright yellow aspens and the black spears of lodgepole pines against the immensity of yellow-orange peaks. Tried to look at Pinnacle Peak without falling on our backs. Shuffled our feet alongside the Granite River. Thought about being at the headwaters of the COLUMBIA watershed way up in the Gros Ventres, and fell asleep to the roar of Granite Falls. When the howling of coyotes awoke us at midnight, Peggy said “It really isn’t that cold tonight, is it?” By daylight we were froze to the bone, AGAIN.

High Granite

Granite Creek

(Memo # 24)

Hot Sulphur Springs
Sept. 28/29 - Taking the Waters, Wyo.

Who? Nature, CCC, and entrepreneurs

What? hot springs

Where? Jackson, Wyoming, and Thermopolis, Wyoming

When? CCC constructed pool at Jackson in 1930's, Thermopolis bought from Native Americans and developed as state bath house

How? New Deal project and Wyoming state support

Question: How is Thermopolis, Wyoming, like Baden Baden?

If you can answer that questions, you know how I have gotten an incredible treat in the last few days. Mineral hot springs. In two very different settings indeed.

The first hot spring is in Thermopolis, Wyoming, where the white rock letters on the butte overlooking town boast “World’s Biggest Hot Spring”. Thermopolis is a typical Western town, wide dusty main street with a mixture of businesses in a small valley surrounded by barren hills.. Then you go a half mile down a side street, across a small bridge, and are in an oasis. Wide lush green lawns with huge trees form a real park with several low buildings around it - two motels (perhaps the only ones to advertise hot springs on site). One had been a hospital for people seeking relief for their ailments in the waters.

Hot Sulphur

View of Thermopolis
I had no idea what to expect having heard of isolated pools up canyons. I certainly didn’t expect to see two water parks with huge slides and diving boards flanking a “State of Wyoming public bath”. Well. Public baths in my experience are part of Rome and certain religions and turn-of-the-century ghettos.

We went in and a park ranger gave us locker keys, asked us whether we wanted indoor or outdoor pool and signed us in. She warned us only to stay in forty-five minutes due to the heat. I change into a bathing suit and went outside. The outside pool was about forty feet square and four feet deep. No swimming allowed here. A variety of people were simply sitting immersed up to their necks on seats around the pool. The center was shaded by a roof supported on four pillars. The water was hot and slightly sulfuric to the smell. And very very soothing. Road fatigue melted away.


Totally relaxed and redressed we walked around the descending set of pools that were the original pre-bathhouse site. The mineral water has colored the rocks in rainbow hues and it is a colorful scene. We tested the water near its source and it was almost boiling. They must cool it for the bathers. Apparently the Indians used the hot springs for health. When they sold them to the government, it was with one condition. One third of the springs’ use would be free. We benefited as a result.

Two days later I am up to my neck in warm water again. This time over 8000 feet up on a mountainside near Jackson, Wyoming. This hot springs is nine miles up a dirt road and another 1/4 mile by foot to a man-made pool (painted bright blue) on the mountain. The changing room is a log building. The pool is irregular, perhaps thirty feet across at its widest. You can swim. So we did, in water that the thermometer said was 98.6 degrees F. It seemed incredibly luxurious to be in a warm pool surrounded by mountains with a brisk breeze blowing.

High Camp

There was an odd historical connection. The second pool had been constructed during the 1930’s by the CCC. I thought this New Deal program had created trails and mountain buildings. It must have seemed odd for young men desperate for jobs to be sent to the mountains to build a swimming pool!

Granite Creek

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