The Mountain West of the United States is an astonishingly varied showcase of nature’s wonders.
From the Grand Canyon to Glacier Park, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Mt. Rushmore and many other national parks, the American West is like a widely dispersed Disneyland.
And the world knows it. Elbow your way into one of the national parks on a weekend, as I did yesterday in Yellowstone, and you will find traffic worthy of Manhattan.
The national parks crowd is a cosmopolitan bunch that speaks languages by the dozen.
When you stop to see the burbling paint pots, they burble sure enough — but you can barely hear the bubbling for the roar of traffic racing past.
The trend these days is for normal, otherwise sensible people to drive big loud motorcycles. They aren’t real bikers — just people pretending to be tough for the weekend — but they still make plenty of noise.
In addition to the motorcycles, the parking lots at the various viewing places are filled with Audis, Lexuses and Porches.
All of these cosmopolitan people need cosmopolitan treats.
The menu at the café at Signal Mountain Lodge in Grand Teton National Park lists coffee, but not just any coffee. No, they have “organic shade-grown Bolivian coffee, fair-traded, served in environmentally responsible cups.”
At the next table at Signal Mountain, a woman turned down two margueritas before finally requesting bottled water rather than settle for a drink that wasn’t mixed according to her expectations.
No, you don’t need to rough it in the national parks any more. You will be pampered, as long as you are willing to pay.
I do enjoy the sights of the national parks. However, I have decided that the very best of the American West lies outside their gates.
As you drive out of the parks, the roads get wider. Shoulders reappear. Speed limits go up.
Often you follow the rugged river that started in the national park as it flattens out into a wider plain. And there is where the prettiest sight of all comes into view:
Hay meadows. There is nothing like the hay meadows in the mountain valleys of the American West.
The first alfalfa field might be five acres on a bend in the river, the next 15 acres around a bigger bend — and finally you come upon a 50-60 acre dark green field irrigated by the mountain snowmelt with half-mile long sprinklers.
No tourists stop to see the hay meadows. The cosmopolitans drive right by as they race to the next Disney-like adventure, be it geysers or waterfalls or big heads carved in stone.
That is fine. The urbanites can drive past and let me enjoy the western hay meadows in non-organic, unguided, un-narrated bliss.
Paradise Valley south of Livingston, Montana, has probably the most beautiful hay meadows. The valley is famous, costly and dotted with expensive homes of rich people who have come to appreciate hay meadows as well as the towering mountains in the background.
But there are dozens of agricultural mountain valleys scattered across the Mountain states that are undiscovered and pristine.
My favorite drive in the world runs from remote Burns in eastern Oregon to Boise, Idaho. Weaving along the Malheur River, the road snakes through a canyon between lonely brown mountains that aren’t spectacular enough to be on a travel poster.
Yet, the sight of a farmer on a Farmall mowing hay with a sickle mower on a sliver of level land along the river in the shadow of those lonely mountains satisfies me more than 50 posters of Mt. Rushmore.
As a child, one of our summer trips took us to the Cache Valley in Utah, a beautiful agricultural nook between two mountain ranges.
As much as I liked the mountains, it was the farmer cutting hay in the distance behind my uncle’s home in Logan, Utah, that mesmerized me the most.
Haying is familiar. For my entire childhood, my Uncle Orville hayed our farm until the dew set in late summer evenings.
Put something homey and familiar — like good, sweet-smelling alfalfa hay, and the machinery that harvests it — in a grand location, like the mountain valleys of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana or Oregon, and you have some real magic.
For my next trip west, I have decided to skip the Disney-like over-the-top natural attractions like Old Faithful.
Instead, I am going to concentrate upon finding the most beautiful hay meadows in the American West.
(Visit Eric's weblog at www.countryscribe.com.)