We hurried down the path, going a bit too fast, rushing against the dying light. Our time was dwindling. Our quarry might be just over the next hill, or crossing a distant meadow, and so we kept moving.
We did not even know for sure what we were hunting, or whether we would find it.
Then we rounded a corner and felt a subconscious, animal tingle warning us that something was not quite right. A hazy figure to our left came into focus in stages, like looking at the face of a stranger for a few moments before discovering you have stumbled upon an old acquaintance. But once resolved, it was unmistakable.
Twenty feet ahead, with nothing but empty ground and clear air between us, was the most dangerous wild animal in North America.
Amy slowly raised the aperture to her eye, her finger hovering over the trigger. “Cool,” she whispered.
Thursday, May 12
Here’s a nugget of information about us: our modus operandi is long lead times with heavy emphasis on strategic planning. We would never buy, say, a refrigerator, without research, deliberation, and several (several!) trips to the home improvement store for in-person evaluation. One time, and this is a true story, we decided to rescue a cat from our local shelter as company for our current cat, and making that happen took us longer than the Summer Olympics.
So, when we planned a getaway on Tuesday evening and our departure was Thursday afternoon, the mental adjustments required to pull that off nearly gave us the bends. Cancelling meetings and dinner plans with close friends was the least of it. We had to clear that schedule with ourselves.
But it was a road trip to Yellowstone National Park; and not only were we road trip pros, but we knew Yellowstone well. So we pulled off an extended weekend vacation with just two days’ planning. It wasn’t exactly spontaneity, but it was as close as we dared get to it.
The day of departure was upon us before we had time to catch our breath. We left our house at 3:30 on a sunny Thursday afternoon. Amy slipped out of work a shade early, and I tore myself away from a full slate of Crocodile Hunter reruns to pack the vehicle. Our travel equipment was a 2011 Chevy Tahoe with a fresh oil change.
We had reserved a room in West Yellowstone, Montana, a raggle-taggle community just outside the park’s West Entrance. Everything in West Yellowstone has developed around accommodating visitors to America’s First National Park. It shares some DNA with Jackson, Wyoming, its famous neighbor to the southeast, but only in the sense that a pampered show poodle also shares DNA with a scruffy yard mutt. West Yellowstone is the mutt. We both like it quite a bit.
It is impossible to estimate how long it takes to drive from Salt Lake City to West Yellowstone. It could be anywhere from 4 ½ to 9 hours, and depends on an alchemy of how often you need to stop, what route you take, and the delays you encounter. Strange things happen on the way. We have run into blinding rainstorms and large herds of sheep on the highway. Once, my dad’s alternator conked out. Another time, we had to stop and replace a camera strap.
On Thursday, May 12, 2016, it took us six hours. And even though we had reserved the room, packed our bags, and deliberately aimed the vehicle in the proper directions, we were still a little surprised to be there.
We had found a reasonably priced room at the Best Western Desert Inn, right in the heart of town. We were exploring options since our motel-of-preference changed hands, and while there are quite a few small motels in West Yellowstone, many of them look like the sort of places where an escaped prisoner might be hiding in the next room over. So we stuck with the known quantity for our quick trip. A friendly employee checked us in.
The elevator made a sound precisely like someone screaming as it slowed to stop on the third floor (“Aaaaaaaaaauauuuuuugggggghhhhhhh!!!”). We exchanged uneasy glances.
In room 307 we did some minimal unpacking, ate wretched carry-out hamburgers and then settled in for pre-bedtime reading. Amy fell asleep with a Lee Child/Jack Reacher book, “Running Blind,” and I worked well into the night on “The Shadow of the Wind,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I finally switched the lamp off and fell asleep after Amy stirred and told me it was getting late.
Amy mashed down on the trigger several times, firing as quickly as she could focus through the viewfinder. I could hear the mechanical sound of the shutter, which offered no comfort. What help was a camera against the most dangerous animal in North America?
The mind produces strange observations in those singular moments where time stops and life and death are in flux. All I could think was how much smaller it seemed than in my imagination.
Smaller, that is, except for the massive, curved claws. Those matched my most vivid fever dreams in every degree.
It looked right at us, taking a few odd, pigeon-toed steps in our direction. As luck would have it, the animal was on a slope above our heads. Running was not an option.
Friday, May 13
Our 7:15 alarm was silenced by a tired flop of a hand, and we finally dragged ourselves out of bed at 9:40. This was a minor tragedy, as we had planned to be in the park early for animal watching. It did not help that we had both been plagued with intense, bizarre dreams about vacations gone horribly wrong.
Yellowstone is a mythology-drenched land. Humans have lived and hunted in the caldera for at least 11,000 years. The explorers, trappers, and mountain men of the early 19th century found it both miraculous and dangerous, and even today the Yellowstone area could be quite spooky. I wondered about our dreams, and the screaming elevator, and the unsettled thumps of the hotel. Had we sent out “sympathetic vibrations” or picked up a “hitchhiking ghost” somewhere along the way*?
[*Or, it could have been the late-night greasy hamburgers and dramatic bedtime reading.]
Although certain areas of Yellowstone National Park are open all year, heavy snow and cold delineate a tourist season. This was the earliest in the season we had visited the park, and we were eager to find what might be unique about the second week of May. We had been at least once during every month from June through October, and each time of year had its own benefits:
- May: TBD
- June: Active wildlife, including bears; baby animals of all types; moderate crowds
- July: Wildflowers; all park facilities open; slightly cooler than home; heaviest crowds of the year (if you happen to like crowds); mostly reliable hiking trail conditions
- August: Monsoon rains make things nice and humid in the afternoons; park facilities in full swing; “hey, at least we are in Yellowstone!;” the Great Mosquito Migration (if you happen to be in the backcountry and enjoy being covered in red, itchy bumps)
- September: Much cooler weather; crowds decrease throughout the month; the elk begin their rut; animals are frequently active; autumn leaves in lower elevations
- October: Low crowds; the elk rut is in full swing; autumn leaves are still hanging on in places
Put briefly: June is prime, September and October are very good, July is okay, and August is “hey, at least we in Yellowstone!” season. However, we also knew from experience that any trip, any time, can be memorable; you just had to know how to do it.
A surprising number of vehicles were queued at the West Entrance gate; most of the lines were open, and each was at least five cars deep. We had anticipated few other visitors that early in the season, and so any wait to enter the park was bewildering. Still, 30 vehicles was hardly a crush of people, especially in a place the scale of Yellowstone. Time would tell.
Our most pressing question upon entering the park is always: which will be our first major animal sighting? We define “major” as something unlikely to be found in our neighborhood or nearby park, meaning no squirrels, chipmunks, or common birds. Amy had a clipboard to record our sightings, complete with full-color lists she designed and printed. We both played good odds; Amy guessed bison, I guessed elk.
The road from West Entrance crosses the Madison River about halfway to the junction. After the bridge, it edges past a series of open meadows, where we typically see our first animals of the trip. It was there we found a small herd of bison (Amy 1: Nate 0), along with a handful of calves*. They were looking both tentative and tenacious, tiptoeing around the vast bulks of their mothers.
[*We had learned somewhere to call the baby bison “red dogs,” which was fun to say.]
We turned south on the Grand Loop Road toward Old Faithful area, then off at the Firehole Canyon Drive. The two-mile detour follows a section of the old road along the Firehole River through dramatic, rhyolitic rock walls, and provides a view of Firehole Falls. At the far end of the one-way road is a calm, deep section of the river, which has been designated as a swimming area. We combed our collected memories, but could not recall ever having seen a person actually swimming there.
Rejoining the Grand Loop Road, our next pause was to admire a large, bright white trumpeter swan sitting near the shore. This is an under-appreciated animal; not only is it the largest species of waterfowl in the world (it is a big bird), but in the 1930s fewer than 70 wild trumpeter swans were thought to exist. Fortunately, a second colony was discovered in Alaska, and careful conservation built the population to current levels.
Directly across from Midway Geyser Basin, where runoff from Excelsior Geyser drains in bright orange calcium channels down to the river, we stopped to watch an osprey fishing. Twice we saw the osprey dive into the water with an impressive splash, thrashing out with a trout in its talons. Both times, however, a raven would jump to action, harassing and haranguing the smaller osprey until it dropped its catch. The smart, sneaky raven ate well with no effort beyond a quick, intimidating chase, and the frustrated osprey returned to the skies for another attempt.
At the Old Faithful area we found what must have been half that day’s visitors. As the park’s unofficial epicenter, it can be difficult during heavy tourist times just finding standing room to see the namesake geyser erupt. In mid-May there may have been more people than we expected, but we also could have found an unobstructed view, had we so chosen.
This seems like a good place to explain our hierarchy of things we enjoy about Yellowstone:
- Wildlife: The unquestioned leader; we spend more of our time driving around looking for animals than almost anything else.
- Scenery: This goes hand-in-hand with the wildlife, and is often just as impressive
- Waterfalls, rivers, and lakes: There are beautiful, pristine waterways in Yellowstone; all of our favorite hikes are to water features
- Knick-knack and souvenir browsing: 14-year-old Nate might scoff (he was a punk), but I have come around; Amy leads the charge here
- Thermal features: Stunning, and I suspect the reason for most tourism; as the record will show, we had very little to do with them this particular trip
- Cooler weather: A nice value add
We parked in front of the Old Faithful Upper General Store and went inside for #4 on the list. We had barely flipped through the nearest rack of novelty t-shirts when Amy (who has a great ear for music) pointed out that “Blue Monday” by New Order was playing over the speaker system.
I felt my jaw drop, like a cartoon character. The synthesized beats felt alien and misplaced in the large, old log structure. As that first reaction wore off, though, I started considering which genre of music they should have been playing. I expected to hear old rock and roll in subsequent stores*, but what made that more appropriate than early ‘80s new wave? Why not play classical, or world music, or bluegrass?
[*And so we did: “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles and “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters, for example.]
The Walt Disney Company, who has carefully engineered music and sound playing in every square inch of their theme parks, gets that element exactly right. Maybe there was some musical science behind Yellowstone’s decision? At the very least, I thought there might be an interesting story.
A smiling, sharp-eyed employee was standing at the end of a display case. “Excuse me,” I said, approaching. ”Can I ask you a question about the music?”
She nodded, helpful. “Of course.”
I gestured at the ceiling, where “Blue Monday” was still playing. “This is the first time I have heard new wave in one of the Yellowstone general stores, and it’s kind of surprising. Is that something you guys picked, or is it picked for you?”
She followed my eyes upward, with confusion. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sorry, right. I am just asking about this song. It doesn’t seem to match the surroundings and the design of your store. How do you guys decide what to play?”
She looked again, gaping at the ceiling. “Isn’t this the music we always play?”
My expectation of a pleasant conversation with answers as the conclusion was crumbling fast. I scrambled to get back on track, sounding more and more like an idiot with each word: “Sure, maybe. I was just curious about, well, this genre of music. It’s not what I would expect. It’s fine, I mean, I’m not complaining.” (Here I took a deep breath, smiled, and made eye contact.) “I’m really just wondering how you decide what music to play. Is it programmed for you, do you have a digital music system? Or do you have a CD player somewhere in the back, and the manager or someone picks their favorite album?”
It was early in the season. It could have been her first day, for all I know. She looked at the ceiling a third time, probably hoping to see an answer for this strange customer written somewhere up there, but came back with just a shrug. “Sorry, I don’t know.” It was unclear whether she was just talking about the music.
I thanked her and walked away. Between my misfired questions and her inability to process anything except oxygen into carbon dioxide, the conversation went exactly how I might have guessed. I went back to bumbling around the store, and muttering to myself.
After a few modest purchases, we headed out to cross the continental divide on our way to Yellowstone Lake. We frequently refer to this as the “boring” part of Yellowstone, although that is a bit like being an “unexciting” day off from work. A more accurate description is that the scenery is monotonous, and aside from the novelty of the divide (and the hydrological oddity of Isa Lake*), there isn’t much to hold our attention. Amy mitigated the tedium by reading her Lee Child book aloud.
[*From the Wikipedia page: “Isa Lake is believed to be the only natural lake in the world which drains to two different oceans.”]
Turning north at the next junction, we began edging around the massive blue gem of Yellowstone Lake, which sits in 136 square miles of the caldera. To put some kind of comparative measurement on that, it is about 6 times the size of Loch Ness in Scotland, which may or may not help you — I don’t know your life. The long drive around Yellowstone Lake is nearly as monotonous as going over the divide, but the drop in altitude and open vistas provide better odds of seeing wildlife. Almost immediately we came across elk and mule deer, marking them on the clipboard.
Near Bridger Bay, close to Lake Junction, we took an obscure side road named Gull Point Drive. Approaching from West Thumb, the detour begins in misty lodgepole pines before emerging at a point where the road appears to cut across a small section of the lake like a causeway. We pulled onto the shoulder to have a closer look at the birds bobbing in the lake.
I have been guilty in the past of spotting dark points on a stretch of water and dismissing them as “ducks” if they fell into a certain size range. A dozen or more water birds — like Canada geese, white pelicans, trumpeter swans, and great blue herons — were noteworthy to me, but not the “ducks.” I just knew it was a diverse group of birds, and had never learned to appreciate them.
That all changed during a trip several years ago, when we bought a field guide and decided to educate ourselves. Now, I was excited to see cinnamon teals, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, northern shovelers, and American widgeons, swimming alongside the familiar mallards. We learned that anywhere you see waterfowl in Yellowstone, there are almost certainly multiple species that are rarely seen at home.
We continued on the main road and turned at the next junction, heading east for the Fishing Bridge General Store, which is our favorite in the whole park. A blue jay landed on our vehicle as we pulled up and parked, which was charming for a moment until it started scrabbling around on the hood with its sharp little claws. I yelled “Oy!” and the bird practically vanished, just as Amy was poised to snap a photo. There was sudden tension in the car.
But Amy could not remain tense for long when surrounded by such glorious trinkets and tchotchkes. We bought a few more unnecessary (but charming!) things. It is a universal truth of retail stores that if you like what it has to offer, you should give them your custom. Otherwise, what you liked may not be there next time. At least, that is what we keep telling ourselves.
The next stop was our favorite picnic spot on the lower loop: Nez Perce Ford. Picnicking in Yellowstone is a low-risk/high-reward proposition. Not only are you are virtually guaranteed to see an animal that is rare to find in your local municipal park (if you are looking, anyway), but it is a proven scientific fact that any food tastes better when eaten in crisp mountain air.
We sat at a table on the bank of the Yellowstone River with the very best chicken salad sandwiches that had ever come out of a 48 quart chest cooler. Across the water was a colony of great blue herons nesting in the tops of some pine trees. A raven glided past, and then another, examining our spread from the safety of the air. A pair of gray jays lit in a nearby tree, hoping for luck. The jays (one of several species commonly called “camp-robber jays”) became more and more daring, even landing on the table to directly address their interest in our food. We saw fish jump and heard geese honking in the distance.
After wrapping up lunch and securing our trash in one of the bear-proof dumpsters, we continued down the road. The next stretch was one of Amy’s particular favorites, as it followed the broad, powerful Yellowstone River through Hayden Valley. At a small tributary named Elk Antler Creek, we came across a tell-tale cluster of parked cars and people pointing binoculars, which signifies one of the more hard-to-find animals is in the area. We parked nearby to take a look.
We are both good at wildlife spotting, so we can usually find the animal without having to ask someone to point it out. But we do get stumped from time to time. If careful eavesdropping and binocular approximation don’t cut it, we have to resort to asking. So, taking a deep breath, I walked over to listen to the guy who was telling everyone about it.
It was a good story: a gray wolf had run down a bank, splashed across Elk Antler Creek, and was now curled up in a ball enjoying the sun. I relayed this back to Amy, and we were both skeptical. We had seen the lump the guy was talking about, but it looked more coyote-sized. I thought the storyteller’s imagination had run away with him. All the same, we couldn’t be sure. Our best guess had the lump around 600-700 yards away, and he had stronger optics — plus had actually seen the animal moving around. We had no reason to doubt him, really (although we still did).
We left the animal traffic jam behind and continued through the valley. Just around the next hill we saw another osprey fishing, as well as more goldeneyes and American widgeons drifting in the placid stretch of river. Amy then spotted a ferruginous hawk hunting over the grassland, and watched it dive and catch a mouse. At the next riverbend we pulled over to watch a muskrat collecting grass for a den.
This all happened in a five mile stretch of road. Yellowstone is a magical place.
Also on Amy’s clipboard is a list of U.S. states and Canadian provinces and territories, so we can play the classic license plate game as we go. At that point of the trip, in the middle of our first day, we had seen vehicles representing 30 states and 4 of the provinces. That sounded like a lot, but during the tourist months our count would have been more like 40-45 states and 7 provinces at that point. The park was indeed less crowded, or so it seemed.
We continued out of the Hayden Valley to the Canyon area. One of Amy’s favorite photographic places is Artist’s Point, overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. We parked in a virtually empty lot, and observed two of our time-honored Yellowstone vacations traditions: Amy took hundreds of photos while I took a quick nap in the vehicle*.
[*The constant tension of looking for wildlife is quite tiring.]
I woke up half an hour later, completely disoriented. I recognized where we were, but somehow had the impression we were waiting for a third party to arrive. It was a hard, serious nap, in other words. I walked down to the overlook to meet Amy, shaking out the cobwebs. She had been shooting while I was passed out, and we enjoyed the stunning, thundering waterfall in the dwindling early evening sun.
The sun was setting as we crossed the middle of the Grand Loop Road and headed back toward Madison. We made liberal use of the roadside pull outs, letting the impatient rocket past us, so as not to be rushed during premium animal spotting hours.
In the meadows beyond Madison junction we again saw the large bison herd from that morning, with their frolicking, playful red dogs. The little fellows sprinted and bucked and gamboled around the placid adults, enjoying another pleasant evening in their very young lives. The adults made constant grunting, snorting noises.
Before long we were outside of the park and into the heart of West Yellowstone. In spite of the ominous beginning, nothing spooky had happened. We had seen sights, spent money in stores, and filled Amy’s clipboard with animal sightings. We celebrated by taking pizza back to our hotel room.
We finished our respective books that night, which was great, but meant we were also up late turning pages. That did not bode well for our planned early departure the next morning.