Grand Prix de Yellowstone

// by tim sandlin    // Illustrations by birgitta sif

The summer of 2020 brought a veritable swarm of tourists to Yellowstone, which would have made for a slow Grand Prix de Yellowstone except for the missing hazard—tour buses. Those lumbering crosses between Triceratops and mud turtles were outlawed. Roads were wide open.

Or so thought Roger Ramsey, Clyde Walsowski-Smith, and the other race drivers. What they didn’t realize was how many of the coastal refugees fleeing the plague were amateur tourists. In an average year, most of the tourists have been here before and know not to slap their kids on a buffalo’s rump for a selfie uploaded straight to Instagram, and the rescue helicopter.

They also didn’t know hotels, campgrounds, and toilets would be shut, the restaurants takeout only, and the bears aggressive. Last fall, after the summer rush, Wyoming changed its state flower to the used Pamper.

Which brings us to the Grand Prix de Yellowstone. Basically, it’s one of those secrets that everyone knows, like Fox is to news what professional wrestling is to sports, and the Golden Globes are rigged.  

The rules: Vehicles tear out of Flagg Ranch at noon on July 2. They rip around the 142-mile double Yellowstone loop, stopping at Lake for tacky souvenirs, Mammoth for Rocky Road ice cream, and Old Faithful where you must witness an eruption and say something inane. (Most drivers fall back on, “It used to be bigger.”)

Fifteen minutes are added if you receive a ticket, ten for running over an animal, and five for hitting a tourist. Five minutes are taken off for every sideswiped RV rearview mirror. Each driver has an observer on board to make certain the rules are followed—and to open snacks.

That’s where I came in. I was Braford Curtis’s observer. Braford held the record for the only five-hour Yellowstone vacation in history, although there are rumors he skipped the upper loop to soak in the Firehole River.

Be that as it may, three cars, an SUV, and a pickup truck spun gravel at the stroke of noon—Clyde, Roger, Braford, Trixie Mudd with her sister Trippy, and my daughter Cora Ann with four gorpers I didn’t know. Lynette Mosebee raced a Diamondback bicycle on the theory the rest of us would spend eight hours in a bear jam like what happened in 2019.

Braford took the lead by shooting through the employees only lane at the entrance station. Braford is a Park employee. Did I forget to mention that? Last summer he was head of mask enforcement.

At the north end of the Lewis River Canyon, Braford stopped his Ford Bronco dead middle of the road, jumped out, and ran to the canyon rim, pointing and hollering, “Griz!”  

Cars slammed brakes, both behind and coming toward us; doors flew open; binoculars, tripods, and iPhones sprouted like umbrellas at the beach.  In five minutes we had traffic trapped for miles both ways.  

That’s when Braford strolled back to the Bronco and we drove off.  He lit a cigarello and grunted, “It’ll take those jokers two hours to wade through that,” and it did. All except Lynette, who blew by us in the turn lane at Grant Village.

“We’ll lose her on Craig Pass,” Braford said.

At the Lake Hotel gift shop, we passed over bamboo bison socks, ten dollar painted rocks, shellacked slabs of Douglas fir with pithy sayings about the weakness of males, elk poop earrings, and a set of whiskey glasses each with its own mountain range embedded in the bottom until we found the king of national park tacky: the Tales of Yellowstone vinyl album written and recorded by Kevin Costner. There really is such a thing. When I gave it to my wife, she was floored.

At Mammoth, Braford switched out his Rocky Road for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. When I threatened to report him, he bought me a shot of Grand Marnier to dribble over my ice cream.

Somewhere around the Madison River, we came up on an EIEIO (Eastern Idaho Early Irons Organization) rally—antique car nuts who had to really stretch to come up with a flippant acronym. The antique cars topped out at twenty-five miles an hour. Many had those multi-tone European sirens with volume control instead of horns, and, when we blew by them on the shoulder, they let loose with an Aw-OOOO-Gah that caused marmots to hibernate and moose to miscarry.

Braford waved and smiled.

As we swept onto the almost-but-not-quite cloverleaf leading into Old Faithful, Braford tossed me his phone.

“Check out the app to see when she’s blowing?”

“You have a geyser app?”

He nodded. “Got Old Faithful down to a thirty-second gap.”

I was dubious. “I don’t think Old Faithful is that faithful.”

Braford let out a snort. Picture an Irish wolfhound dry heaving grass.  “Old Faithful’s been plugged since the 2009 earthquake, but YP and the Park Service had so much invested in hotels and museums they’ve plumbed it. Old Faithful is no more natural than a hedge funder’s empathy.”

That’s when we ran over a Uinta ground squirrel, generally known as a chiseler.  

“You just lost ten minutes,” I said.

He downshifted with a jerk. “Squirrels are fake too. All the animals are artificial, and the trees and rocks. Nothing in Yellowstone Park is real anymore.”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“On the QAnon website, next to the “Cannibals of Beverly Hills” story. Amazon bought Yellowstone three years ago. They’ve stashed it in a fulfillment center outside Conroe, Texas. It’s like Westworld. You ever see the TV show Westworld?”

“I don’t watch TV,” I said somewhat smugly.

“Everything is human designed, even most of the people here are brain-scooped clones.”

“How do you tell the real people from the clones?”

“The clones wear red hats.”

At the geyser boardwalk, Old Faithful gave some of those false starts amateur tourists waste film on while Braford explained to two guys from Australia about Amazon controlling nature.  

“You should look in the hole and see the pipe,” Braford said. 

One Australian winked at the other. “We lie to tourists also. Every local the world over does.”

“Go ahead and walk on out there and check out Old Faithful’s gasket if you don’t believe me.”

So they did.

In the ensuing chaos, Braford and I slipped off back to the Bronco.

Braford chortled. “We’re going to beat five hours, easy.”

And we would have set the new record if, at the top of Craig Pass, we hadn’t been blocked by Cora Ann and her four gorpers who had joined an animal rights group to block the highway while a porcupine gave birth on the no-passing yellow stripe.

I got out and walked over to see how Cora Ann was doing. She sat cross-legged on the pavement, drinking this thing called a strawberry lemonade vodka sloshie.  

She said, “I wonder what it feels like to give birth to a porcupine?  Wouldn’t there be prickles?”

I said, “They’re not real, you know. They’re Amazon Prime.”

“We know, but the animal rights people don’t. They’re naïve.”

Braford came stomping up. “I’m gonna kill that porcupine.”

Which leads to why we didn’t break the five-hour Yellowstone vacation and why Braford had to google “quill removal.” JH

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