Yellowstone, in our minds, was the national park to visit. As such, expectations were high.
Trish had dreamt of visiting Yellowstone for years. She wanted to see the herds of colossal bison meandering through the grasslands. She wanted to see Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring glistening in the sun. I, of course, wanted to see all of that as well, plus whatever other animals we could spot. I just wanted to be in nature.
Unfortunately, the weather conspired against us for the majority of our three days in the two parks. It was cold and rainy in the middle of June. We all had to bundle up the whole time. Fortunately, we had had the foresight to pack at least a few long-sleeve things, an idea we nearly didn’t even have, being that we were going to be traveling in the two hottest months of the year. But these two parks made us glad we had had that idea.
We drove like crazy from Rocky Mountain NP, through wide swathes of nothingness in Wyoming, with large herds of cows and the occasional couple of pronghorn antelopes grazing on the endless scrub grasses coating the low hills. The only thing of note between RMNP and Grand Teton was a confusingly delicious Thai restaurant in Rawlins, Wyoming, staffed by real Thai people rather far from home. They were busy, too. Wyoming’s Ah Nong’s Thai food is to die for.
All I really knew about Grand Teton National Park was that it had some dramatic mountains that I had heard gave the park a more dramatic landscape than Yellowstone.
And I have to agree, wholeheartedly. The park is not huge, but the nearly symmetrical saw-toothed peaks were stunning to look at. They towered over a few small lakes and fields, and the drive along the main road was awesome. We didn’t do any real hikes due to the threat of rain and cold weather, but we did see a grizzly by the roadside, and a coyote near our camp. That’s always fun.
But mother nature’s real showpiece is supposedly Yellowstone. Did I mention we had high expectations? We did. And we were disappointed early on.
And by we, I mostly mean Trish. She had expected Serengeti levels of game pouring out of every corner of the park. I myself wasn’t quite expecting that, though it did seem a little quieter than what I had anticipated.
Trish really wanted to see a bison, and it took quite a while for us to find one. It took so long, in fact, that she became convinced that they didn’t exist; a feeling with which I am quite familiar.
In Africa, the main thing I wanted to see was a leopard. And it took so long to find one that I became convinced that they were not real. I called it “the myth of the tree kitty”. Trish’s un-sated fixation became “the myth of the fat land cow”.
Once we got our camp set up in the late morning, we drove to Old Faithful and walked around the area a bit while we waited for an eruption. The kids loved the oddity of the landscape. Shiloh loved learning about the difference between a geyser and a hot spring by reading the signboards at each location. Judah just thought everything was a geyser.
The crowd for viewing Old Faithful was tremendous. We had to take a seat around the side, though we still had a full view. Shiloh was suitably impressed, a parenting accomplishment as far as I’m concerned. It means I hyped it up just right. Judah was impressed too, but then, he’s impressed by small rocks and snack food.
From there, we drove around, in search of Fat Land Cows, elk, bears, whatever. Sure enough, soon after we left Old Faithful, we saw our first herd of paparazzi, stalking three mid-sized bison near the road. Trish slowly thawed from her dejected stance on FLCs enough to enjoy the colossal brutes. Finally, the myth had been confirmed.
Driving around more, we came across herds of them soon thereafter. It was summer, and plenty of half-sized light brown babies were still mixed among the mamas and presumably papas.
We called it a day, satisfied with what we were able to accomplish while the weather was still halfway decent. The sun came out, and the temperature nearly reached 60f (in JUNE).
The next day, the weather was worse. It waffled between an intolerable deluge, and mildly irritating mist all day. But we made it to Grand Prismatic Spring, which underwhelmed. As it turns out, all the fancy pictures of a shimmering rainbow, clear as daylight, are taken during the extremely rare moments when the entire surface is not enshrouded in steam, as it was during our viewing. We could see some teases of color at the edges, but it was too steamy to even appreciate the size of it all. I still appreciated being able to see it, though I was more interested in counting all the hats strewn across the geyser basin floor, ripped from the heads of hapless (or careless) tourists by sudden gusts of wind. I counted seven.
We just drove the rest of the day, not deigning to get out for fear of gambling and losing against the rain clouds circulating above. We did see many more herds of FLCs, as well as several elk, which, I curiously noted, were never far from a camp or human structure. Perhaps they seek safety there from the bears that tend to stay away from humans, I speculated.
On our last day before leaving, we headed first for Old Faithful again, to see it from the front this time. Mission being accomplished there, we headed for the top left corner of the park to see Mammoth Hot Springs.
Along the way, we bore witness to an incident that proves the stupidity of collective thinking amongst humans. On the side of a narrow road with no real place to pull off, we came across the now familiar sight of dozens of cars pulled off tot he side, with groups of camera-toting tourists pointing and photographing something on the nearby hillside. We had seen this many times before, for herds of bison and elk, but this crowd was different. They were eager and great in number, and whatever there was up on that hillside, they were running to it to get a view. We had our immediate don’t-even-tell-me suspicions, which were confirmed once we managed to inch close enough to see it.
It was a bear. A big brown bear, grazing mildly on the hillside, perhaps thirty or forty feet from the crowd of scores of people snapping away with their smartphones, happily ignoring the inescapable advice of rangers to stay at least 100 yards from wild bears, because they will crush you with no warning or sympathy. And the crowd was growing, with people running TO the bear. Fears of mauling be damned, they needed to get close to the potential tornado of claws and teeth to look at it being all cute and beary while it searches for pick-a-nick baskets. Once we finally passed, we saw a park ranger vehicle speeding towards the pack of bear snacks with iPhones, surely to inject some sanity and get them to back the eff up.
We gambled and lost against the rain when we finally arrived at the hot springs. We attempted to get out and suit up, only to have the heavens open upon our meager heads. We sheltered in place in the car until we deemed it safe enough to try again. Once the rains did subside, we made the light hike to the top of the springs, and were treated to some amazing views out over the large steppes, ever flowing with hot volcanic water filled with colorful bacteria. Beautiful sight.
On our way out and back to camp, we had easily our best nature experience of the trip. We decided to take the slightly longer way out, so that we could go down a road we had not passed down before. And we were immediately glad we did; right as we left, we had to stop in the middle of the road to wait for a herd of bison to cross it. But instead of crossing, they decided to just waltz right down the middle of the road, to go to town and stock up on provisions I guess. In doing so, they passed right by our car, feet away. I had my window down to get a better video. I rolled it up after I locked eyes with two separate mommy bison, who, upon eye contact, altered their course and advanced on me. I rolled up the thin pane of tempered glass, which surely would have saved me had one of them decided to ram their beefy horned skulls into it.
They next morning I had to break camp in the freezing rain. As great as the Conqueror is overall, it has its drawbacks. We watched longingly as other RVs just drove off, without having to roll up all kinds of awnings and rain flies, and fold up the front bed, and take off the levelers, and close up the propane tanks, and take off the support wheel, and try to keep as much stuff dry as we could. This thing is cool and rugged but de-camping in the cold and/or rain is not the best.
We had a matter to settle in Idaho: picking up a replacement awning for the one that got totaled by the plains winds of Pampa, Texas. It had been a small adventure in itself just trying to get it shipped to the right place at the right time, but we finally managed to pick it up at the Fedex freight office in Blackfoot, Idaho. We found a nice free camp a little ways past Pocatello, and I managed to replace the $1500 mistake with relative ease. At least I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
From here, we’re headed into our next adventure, California.