Monday, July 20, 2009

The darker side of Yellowstone

It's confession time, everyone. Before this summer, I had not been to Yellowstone National Park since I was 8 years old, which means that I had a 14-year hiatus from Old Faithful and all of the wonders of the park.

Yes, I know this is sad. I live an hour and a half away from America's favorite and oldest national park, and I only find time to go once a decade. So this summer, when my brother wanted us all to go through the park together before he left on his mission, I jumped at the chance to go. We left at 8 in the morning and hit Old Faithful and some of the paint pots and other spots, and I thought we were good. Yellowstone's pretty great, and I'd love to go again this summer, I thought.

And at the beginning of July when I found out there was another free park day, I began to get really excited, thinking of all the cool pictures I could take and the other waterfalls and geysers I didn't get to see. My friend Karla, who works with me at the store, told me she'd never been to Old Faithful, and that settled it. We had to go.

So on Sunday morning-ish, we started out in her '94 Grand Am with a huge cooler and her two kids in the backseat, three-year-old Bailey and 18-month-old Tex. I was a little nervous getting into her car, because not only was it missing a bumper, but she'd already told me how worried she was that it would give out on the Ashton Hill. But I climbed in anyway, and we were off.

Yellowstone was great the second time too, even with two little kids. We pushed Bailey and Tex around in strollers on the boardwalk so they could check out the paint pots and see Old Faithful and stopped so Bailey could see real buffalo close up, because she was SO excited to see them on her trip. My mom called around 4 o'clock to warn me about a fierce thunderstorm, but it was so hot that I didn't even pay attention to it.

Since we didn't have a lot of time, Karla decided we were going to cram as much as we could into one afternoon. We started off for Canyon Village, supposedly 50 miles away from Old Faithful, and then decided to go to Mammoth Hot Springs while we were over there, too. But about 10 minutes into the trip, it began to rain, and then pour, and then HAIL. Hard. As Karla turned on her windshield wipers, I squinted through the hail in horror. Only one of them worked.

"I knew you'd like that," Karla quipped, trying to lighten the mood.

It didn't really work. With only one working wiper, we had to slow way down, taking twice as long to make it to Canyon Village. Eventually, however, we reached it and saw the waterfalls (although my camera died before I got a picture of the big one). The hail had stopped, and things were looking up again. Even though it was late, we decided we were too close not to make it to Mammoth Hot Springs, because Karla had been looking forward to that all day.

When we were about twenty minutes from Mammoth, however, winding our way around a steep canyon, a huge line of cars were pulled off the road. Since we were kind of in a hurry, we asked the ranger what had stopped the traffic and made it impossible to get through. She told us that a grizzly bear had been spotted out in the meadow.

I wanted to get as far away from a big, scary eat-me-for-dinner bear as possible. But Karla swerved over, parking her car half in traffic, and jumped out with her camera. We stood there for about five minutes and couldn't see the bear, who had apparently dipped back down into the valley. The ranger asked Karla to move her car, and I thought, OK. We're going to keep going now so we don't get mauled by an angry predator. But Karla handed me her camera and told me to stay there and take pictures while she drove back and tried to find a place to park.

I swatted mosquitoes and silently cursed my friend who was warm in her car and safe from the wildlife, when suddenly, the grizzly bear mounted the ridge. He was only about 100 yards away, and he was even bigger than I had imagined. I snapped into photographer mode (unfortunately, she has all the photos, so I can't even prove that I was there) and tried to get shots of the bear, but he ambled back down somewhere in the hills before I could get very many decent photos.

I was sure he was going to pop back up really close to the road where I and about 30 other people were standing, but fortunately, Karla came back around and got me, realizing that it was going to get dark before we made it to Mammoth.

When we reached the hot springs, lightning was flashing and I could hear thunder. Another rainstorm was eminent. But we pulled the stroller out anyway and loaded the kids in, determined to make it to the top. What we didn't realize was that there weren't any ramps or switchbacks to get there — it was just a boardwalk with about twenty-five flights of stairs.

After pushing and pulling two kids in a stroller up ten of those flights of stairs, Karla had an idea: She'd fold up the stroller and carry it, and I'd carry the baby up the stairs and hold Bailey's hand. Unfortunately, Bailey was barefoot and didn't like getting her feet cold and wet in all the puddles. Soon, I was packing both kids up the stairs and waiting to get struck by lightning. But the sky had mercy, and I pushed the kids back down the paved path in their stroller at record speed while Karla shot pictures and then ran to keep up with us.

By the time we got back to the car, it was 9:30 p.m., and I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Along the way, there had been signs warning travelers that the road from Norris to Madison was closed from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m., which meant that we would either be stuck in the park if we missed that road, or we would have to find another way out. But I shook it off. We'll make it there, I thought. We're not that far from the road.

At 10:30 p.m., we pulled up to an orange blinking sign and two Montana cars, who told us there was no way we could get through, and they were MAD. It was only 28 miles to West Yellowstone, which is where they were from, (and where we were headed, too) and the detour was 90 miles, back through Canyon, Fishing Bridge and Old Faithful. If I were a cussing girl, I would have let out a stream of bad words at that point. Karla didn't feel my same inhibitions, however.

Meanwhile, both Karla and I had cell phones that were rapidly losing battery life, and I could see three voicemails from my parents wondering where I was, but I didn't have any service. We finally reached a clear spot in the park, and I was able to explain to my dad, in three different calls, that we were stuck in the park and had to drive all the way around. He promised me that he and my mom would wait up for me, and to drive really carefully home. I have a nice mommy and daddy.

By this time, the kids were NOT happy. I finally got Bailey to sleep, but Tex kept going in and out of sleep and screaming when he woke up. Karla insisted on driving (I found out later why), so I held Tex in my arms and rocked him back to sleep, praying that the park rangers wouldn't drive by.

Not all prayers are answered at the right time. Around midnight, a truck came screaming by (which wasn't hard to do, since Karla was maxing out at 30 because there were elk all along the road) and then turned around and began to follow us. I thought he was drunk and was following our headlights, and I freaked out when he suddenly turned off his lights...and then turned them on again, along with his flashing lights. Crap, I thought. A park ranger in disguise.

Karla pulled over, and the park ranger walked up to the window, telling us he stopped us because "it is required in the state of Wyoming to have a light illuminating your license plate" and because he wanted to find out why we were going so slow. At midnight, when you've just gotten a baby to sleep and in his car seat and you're trying to get out of an enormous state park in the dark, you're not always the most tactful.

"We would be out of here if you hadn't closed the road," Karla said.

He got the point. He apologized, checked her license, and told us to drive carefully so that nothing would happen to those kids.

A few hours later, at about 2:30, Tex woke up and began screaming again, so Karla pulled over and tried to get him back to sleep and let her car cool down, because it was overheating. About five minutes later, a second park ranger turned on his lights and pulled over. But this time, Karla knew the drill, and he left pretty quickly. I think he could tell we were about to crack.

When we started up again, I took over driving and immediately discovered why Karla had insisted on driving, even though she was exhausted. The driver's seat was broken, and since Karla is only 5'1 and tiny, we had a bit of a problem. I had to squeeze my 5'8 frame into the seat, my knees knocking against the steering wheel and my forehead practically sticking out of the windshield, just waiting for an angry moose to come charging out of the trees and get me. And it didn't help that Karla was extremely paranoid about the brakes and told me to SLOW DOWN every time I went over 30.

At 3:09, we finally made it out of the park and into West Yellowstone, where it took us two hours to crawl down the Ashton Hill and make it into St. Anthony. I remember walking into my house as the sun was on its way up, around 5:15, telling my parents I'd made it, and collapsing in my bed, only to get up four hours later for work.

All I can say is that those pictures of the grizzly bear had better turn out, or you might not believe me. But you should. I've got the bags under my eyes to prove it — and I think some of my forehead is still plastered to that windshield.


  1. The best laugh I've had all day. All of my worst Yellowstone fears were found by you in that one trip. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow! You're an awesome writer! It kept me reading until the very last sentance--and, I don't think any of my trips to Yellowstone have ever been that exciting!



Thanks for sharing your beautiful thoughts! I love reading them.