Weather.com proved to be reliable – reliably wrong, that is. I arrived around 5:00, in the rain. I guess it’s beyond the scope of current weather prediction to know just when the mountains and clouds will decide to offer a deluge. By the time I got to my campsite it had stopped and the sky above was less dark, though there were plenty of rain clouds not far away.
Because of the layout of the site I couldn’t do the tent-to-car thing, but the tent works fine as a free-standing entity. I leaped out of the car and set it up in record time, though the rain caught up with me towards the end. Still, once I toweled out my tent I was pretty comfortable … once I got out of my wet jeans. I was pleased to find that my new boots were, as advertised, waterproof. After a bit, I went outside to find that the rains had passed, the sun was shining and I could have had a dryer experience had I waited, but that was not certain when I arrived and after a lot of driving I didn’t want to sit in the car for another, uncertain half hour.
There’s lots of wildlife in the park. It’s unfenced and free – it lives there, you’re just visiting. I walked down to the meadow where a herd of buffalo grazed. Dances With Wolves aside, I gave them a wide berth. I slept well, comfortably ensconced in my cozy new sleeping bag, although I was a little annoyed by the quiet chuffing of a nearby generator – I thought they weren’t supposed to be used after 10:00 and planned to track down the user in the morning. Halfway through the night, I sidled out of my tent to answer nature’s call and discovered that the “generator” was actually a buffalo who had decided to slumber near my tent. You are repeatedly warned that although they appear tame, they are wild, unpredictable and potentially dangerous, so I took pains not to disturb him.
After dinner the next evening I made a nice campfire and sat comfortably watching it as the dusk shaded towards night. At some point in the gathering darkness I glanced to my right and noticed someone standing nearby on the road looking at me, just staring. He was hard to make out clearly in the subdued light and it was odd and more than a little weird. Finally it all popped into focus and I realized that it was a buffalo, studying me and my campsite.
He shook his head and began to clomp forward while I did a quick maneuver behind the picnic table. Unperturbed by my presence he stolidly marched ten feet away through my campsite, between the campfire and my tent, towards a grassy hill beyond. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” I thought to myself, but then realized that he was only the leader and was followed by four more!
I spent a couple of days exploring Yellowstone, though it could have been more. I did the lower area first with its geysers, mudpots, and steaming pools brilliantly colored by thermophiles – microorganisms which thrive and flourish in the impossibly hostile, acidic environment at up to 250 degrees. Some are classified as Archaea, among the earliest bacteria on earth and a focus of the search for life on other planets and the moons of Jupiter.
I checked out the remarkable Old Faithful inn, built in 1903-1904 and considered the largest log structure in the world. I climbed the trail to an overlook which gave a terrific view of the valley.
The next day I drove north to Mammoth Hot Springs. They’re doing serious construction on that portion of the park loop – rebuilding the road from scratch, it seemed – which I thought might discourage the less intrepid and keep the traffic down a bit. The springs feed terraces of calcium carbonate, layered in colorful arrays which build up year after year. Although there are warnings everywhere about the risk of burns and scalding from the water, there are some birds that wade around in it. I watched one tread about, picking at bits of something and named him Hotfoot.
Rather than traverse the four miles of road construction again at 15 mph, I returned to Madison Campground via the snow-covered Dunraven Pass. On the way there I noticed a group of people with binoculars looking out over a many-miles-wide meadow. “What are we looking for?” I asked. “Well, there’s elk and buffalo, of course, but we think there’s a wolf with pups.” I nodded knowledgeably, but sure didn’t see any elk or buffalo until I got my own binocs and realized that those were the tiny dots amidst a sea of green and brown. It’s hard to get an accurate sense of scale in Yellowstone.
I made a stop at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, another breathtaking sight, and did a little walking on the trail, but I needed to get the town of West Yellowstone to pick up Andrew, who was coming in by bus. He was right on time and we picked up some groceries. The town is at one of the primary entrances to the park and has perks you wouldn’t expect – papayas in the small super market and an IMAX theater!
Traffic was exceptionally heavy in the other direction as we headed back to camp, with long pileups of cars leaving the park. Some of it was no doubt because people would inexplicably halt whenever they spied an animal of any sort. A buffalo near the road guaranteed a traffic jam. However, it concerned us as we thought about our strategy for the next day.
Andrew’s an experienced outdoors cook and we had steak, baked potatoes, salad and wine for dinner. It was all good except that the wine seemed … off. It was cheap, but even so, it seemed sort of … weird. Closer examination revealed all: whoever heard of “alcohol-removed wine?” That’s otherwise known as grape juice. We moved on to the other bottle of real wine; much better.