FEATURES: Chief Joseph Scenic Highway

March 7, 2005
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0411 Gd Map 445
Twenty-seven thousand miles of paved and gravel roads. Three hundred seventy-four stoplights. These are Wyoming's road stats. I try to do the math as my plane flies over the vast countryside. That's like, well, a whole lot of roads without a lot of stoplights. Pressing my nose to the turboprop's window, I can, in fact, see them. Roads curlicuing over mountains, arrowing through plains, whoop-de-doing through rolling fields. Arriving from canary-cab-packed Manhattan, all I can think of is all that country and no traffic.
I land in Cody, the gateway to Yellowstone, at the same time as my buddy Jason arrives from Boston. An electric-blue Audi S4 Avant awaits us in the parking lot. I'm excited about the car, but that color . . . No worries, I mutter. It'll muddy up. After all, we have a fine plan: wander Wyoming, get gloriously lost. The haphazard itinerary includes delicious roads, world-class hiking, and cowboy bars that post signs saying things like "Good cowgirls keep their calves together."
We cram our backpacks, boots, food, tent, tarp, and snowshoes into the wagon. A mid-engine two-seater was out of the question, but I also wanted something torquey enough to launch over mountain passes, so no Cadillac Escalades, either. The S4, at more than 3900 pounds, svelte considering the 4.2-liter V-8 engine packed inside, was the answer. It guts out 302 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm and 340 horsepower at 7000 rpm. My get-to-know-you session begins on the two-lane road out of Cody. I work through the six-speed manual in short order, passing through two mountain tunnels (third) and then along a mountain-ringed lake (fourth), and by the time the road sweeps through forests of pine (fifth), I'm grinning madly. The Avant wants to go-go, and the asphalt is shiny new with wide, roomy shoulders. The speedometer never dips below triple digits.
We head straight for WY 296, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, a 46-mile stretch that includes a seven-switchback descent off an 8000-foot summit. The only other vehicle we see on the first thirteen miles of ascending curves is a VW Thing chug-lugging along. The S4's supple front four-link suspension seems designed just for these roads, firm and without body roll. When we reach Dead Indian Summit, I get off the accelerator to stop at the lookout point. The panorama of the Absaroka mountains is stunning, but it's what's below us that I like most. The road twists down the mountainside like a long ribbon cast away from an eight-year-old's birthday present. Then the Thing shudders by. I groan. Jason shrugs. "Catch and release." Good point. We give it ample time, then I jump into the driver's seat. On the way down, I'll concentrate equally on smoothness and not hurtling us into space. The Avant is recalcitrant between second and third, and I struggle to avoid being herky-jerky in my heel-toe downshifts. By the time we've hit the valley floor, we've run through the alphabet-Ss, Cs, an occasional L, undulating Us. The Quattro's wheels are gratifyingly sticky, especially when a drizzle kicks up. God love all-wheel drive; on this trip, we'll encounter rain, hail, sun, and snow-usually within the same two-hour period.
My only complaint with the S4 is that it feels narrow and cramped. The A-pillars squeeze the cockpit, and as two big guys, we're often fighting for elbow space. Not any fault of Audi, but before the week is over, the car also will smell of wet woolen socks. "Pine freshener," my buddy opines. "We need one."
That afternoon, we navigate through Disneyland . . . er, Yellowstone. We crawl past carloads of tourists with binoculars aimed at imaginary wildlife. Then we get mired in a traffic jam. But this is Wyoming! All this land. A traffic jam? We get out and discover that it was caused by buffalo in the road-a bison logjam. A bull stares at us impassively as we skirt by.
We rise early the next morning to find that, even though it is early summer, the tops of the mountains in Grand Teton Park, just south of Yellowstone, are swaddled in snow clouds. We're planning to spend the next couple of days hiking and camping up there. I soon discover why Jason rented snowshoes. After three nights in a snow-covered tent, I'm pleased to get back to driving. We stop in Jackson Hole to get a bison burger (sweet, sweet revenge) and then head to Highway 191. Any road based on the curves and caprices of a river is good, and this one follows the Snake. A hawk drops from over our hood, skims the river, and rises with a thrashing trout in its claws. Then we slow down for a roadside obstruction: a wild goat. It's a great road. The trees eventually give way to open plains and enormous skies. The road dwindles to the perspective point, and we open the Audi to its upper reaches.
We are headed to the Wind River Range, one of the most undeveloped and pristine mountain ranges in all the Lower Forty-eight. We'll do more hiking and exploring. But as we keep pace with foamy, cream-colored clouds arcing across the massive sky, the hum of tires on asphalt the only sound, I feel expansive, thrilled. I could drive on forever on this road, and it would never end. The world is open and free. There's not a stoplight anywhere.
Trip Notes
Location: Northwestern Wyoming.
General information: Wyoming Travel and Tourism (www.wyomingtourism.org).
Where to stay: Snake River Lodge and Spa, 7710 Granite Loop Road, Teton Village (800-445-4655; www.rockresorts.com); Red Lion Wyoming Inn, 930 West Broadway, Jackson (800-844-0035, www.redlion.com).

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