Fall Colours Don't Forget Your Bucket


Fall Colours

Don't Forget Your Bucket

Open Ground

Just in time for the world's biggest blimp jamboree

Wyoming, USA
19th October, 2001

Middle America is vast. There are empty spaces in America that can open up and swallow you whole. It sometimes seems that must already have happened to some of the towns we passed through. All the time I expected to see what Hollywood had promised from small-town America: low life in-bred hicks with a resentment of strangers that was only a shotgun click away.

Instead, I found nothing but smiling, helpful people with a keen interest in myself and the world outside. But also an emptiness, a dullness: not inherent in the people themselves, but in the awful drabness of the towns they lived in. Nothing but sprawling suburban without the urban, little boxes in wide spreads, like a child's junior lego set that had been strewn across a room and never tidied up. Such dull surroundings had to affect the people in some way. They had little to go out and do, and always had to drive across such expanses, always in trucks.

Sigh. It has to be said.

Little wonder they're all so fat.

Grotesque! Porky! Obese! It was like arriving in Nowhereville, Wyoming in time for the world's largest blimp jamboree!

There. Why are most U.S. towns so dull, so ripe to drive their inhabitants to such lengths (or widths) like a burger-dampened cry of protest, a non-hunger strike?

Architecture and Heart-Disease

A phrase kept going through my mind as I looked about me, I think from the architectural critic Jonathon Mead: cities civilize. This was the founding concept behind the cities of Europe and the world prior to the mid-nineteeth century: that a city was a bastion of light and culture against the empty abyss of the natural world. Cities were therefore built so that people, living closely together could join in with the things of civilization: libraries, music, discourse, sport.

But in the nineteenth century the countryside became romantic: in the minds of (city-dwelling) poets and philosophers, the agricultural life lost its stench of animal dung and wasted opportunity, and gained a kind of imaginary nobility. It became fashionable to live in the country, or an approximation of it: the suburb. Pretend country cottages spread out over acre and acre of pretend farmland and woodland to produce the result we know all too well today. A modern city inhabitant lives exactly nowhere: far from the city lights and yet no closer to real countryside than his forebears.

In middle America, it's all suburbs. Everyone has his own house, his lump of land... and nowhere to go. Except the mall. For consumption, of course.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the world, visited by millions for being uniquely yellowish and gassy. So am I after a night on Michelob Amber Bock, and do I get any attention?

But I do not have to play host to any bison. Giant, shaggy, cows that just stare at you dully while chewing the cud. Like trying to chat up a Belfast woman.

Yellowstone is an interesting place, low hills of a huge volcanic caldera full of hot springs, sulphur springs and geysers. We trooped up to watch Old Faithful go off with a satisfying regularity. I felt a strange pang of envy. Don't know why.

Grand Teton National Park

The Grand Tetons are a serrated line of grantite running by a long lake the more to emphasise their preening perfection. They are the show-offs of American mountain ranges. To teach them a thing or two, four of us decided to do some serious off-trail climbing. We were to climb along a gully, scramble up some rock pitches and emerge onto a short ridge beside a height called Storm Point in order to assess and then tackle the height itself. The ascent would be from about 2000m to a height of about 3200m. Horizontally, about 16 km. The day was clear, sunny and dry. Perfect conditions. I looked forward to my first ever climb at altitude.

I have never been so close to death. Not my own, someone else's. For yourself, in times of danger, you can at least act, but when another person is caught and you cannot help, but only watch...

Roberto, our Taiwanese friend, had never been climbing before. We instructed him as we started the rock scramble: how to keep three points of contact with the rock face, how to test each hold before committing himself, how to take his time. The initial rock pitches went fine, as we found adequate holds in the tough granite, but as we rose, the rock became looser and looser. At this altitude the mountain froze and thawed every single night, shattering the rock into scree and shingle, leaving us with few reliable holds.

The thin air of the altitude made breathing more difficult, but acceptable. Stefan and I, the lower climbing pair, became unhappy with the steep and broken gully, and sought an alternative route on the harder rock high up on the side. Steve and Roberto continued up the increasingly unstable wash. I was forced to focus on my own holds, getting stuck a couple of times, but no more than expected.

Life, Suddenly

There was a crash and an ominous rumble. I looked round. Below me, in the gully, Steve had dislodged a rock which clattered down, loosing more and more to create an instant landslide - straight down onto Roberto, 30 m below me. He froze in place, looking up at the onslaught. I remember shouting "Get down! Get your head down!" If your head is down you are less of a target, but Roberto was locked in place, rigid with alarm. I watched horrified, as boulders larger than his head, bounced down to - beside - past him. I was sure he was dead. He must be. Any minute now just one of those rocks would crash into him. He didn't have a chance.

The rush subsided. He was still there! Still locked in the same postion, one hand held uselessly in front of his face, but alive! The God of the Taiwanese smiled that day. I could hardly believe it. We came to the top, relieved, chastened. Admired the beauty, the hidden power of the mountains, and - gingerly - made our way back down.


Yellowstone Geyser


Grand Teton


Climbing the Tetons


USA Route


Hat & Spoon



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The Facts

Where I stayed

Various campsites in or near the National Parks.

How I got around:

Trek America for a three week camping tour. Brilliant fun. We visited and camped in sixteen different national parks. I couldn't imagine a better way to see the US.