Monday, September 13, 2010

Yellowstone National Park

The museum ticket we bought yesterday for the Museum of the Rockies was good for a second day as well. With little road to cover, we thought it would make sense to spend some more time there. And by we, I mean me. I love dinosaurs. Freaking awesome.

But what else was awesome? The breakfast at the Super 8 Motel. They had waffles! Yes the elusive waffles! Unfortunately, Katherine was sick this morning and could not enjoy the bountiful harvest laid out before us. I made sure to eat her fair share as well, and them make some more to put aside for later, when we got hungry driving around, or felt peckish at Yellowstone.

Yes, after the museum, where I gazed at more dinosaurs, and marveled how their appearance changed from young to full matured – looking like two or three completely different species – we got in the car, hit the road, and made our way to Yellowstone National Park.

This is the big daddy of National Parks. The great one. The one in which, slightly fictionalized, a talking bear who always seems to be after someone's pick-a-nick baskets resides.

As we entered into the town just on the outskirts of the park, I wondered what type of people were using the RV parks there? They were more expensive than being in the park themselves. The motels I understood – expensive, but cheaper than the lodges within the boarders – and much more comfortable than a tent.

Then it struck me that I was here in the off season. A constant stream of cars still past through the bricked archway marking the entrance to Yellowstone, and summer was over. During peak season, the park must be flooded. I imagine every spill over site on the outskirts fills up quickly too.

It saddens me that when I go back to teaching my only travel will be during peak season – but then I've done my fair share of getting around the world this year. Perhaps that will make up for it (it won't.)

Driving down the road to Mammoth Springs camp site we past a herd of elk grazing down by the river. A large male bull elk was present, capturing the attention of many a photographer, and ranger alike. The elk are a big draw during the month of September, as they are rutting. Yellowstone, for this reason, keeps ranger activities, and most park services running all the way until October.

When we dragged ourselves away from the animals, we saw the the camp sites fill up just as quickly even in the off season. When we go there, just after two in the afternoon, we were lucky enough to snag the very last tent site.

Katherine wanted to set up the tent, lest someone comes along and steals our site, but I was too eager to get out there and see what Yellowstone had to offer. As the afternoon wore on the sky began to break, and we were rewarded with some of the first glimpses of blue that we had seen in what seemed like ages.

This was an experience not to be wasted.

In the ranger station I asked where we should start our Yellowstone experience. The girl in full costume – uniform, perhaps, but I imagine she just bought hers at a thrift store, or something – looked at me with blank eyes. Finally she pulled random pamphlets and showed me pictures.

That's great, I thought – but where should I go? What are the highlights? I imagine this girl is asked this question no less than a dozen times an hour, and yet she had nothing ready. Finally I asked if I should just drive the big loop road. She still seemed dazed. When we told her we had two nights here she seemed to give a little saying, “i guess, but it's too big for one day.” Very well, I thought – I just said I had two.

Trying to escape her vapid look, I couldn't stop myself from speaking once more, “what are the odds of seeing bison here? Where should I look for them?”

She pointed off to the far side of the loop road, where I'd not be going today. I thanked her. I moved on. On to the gift shop.

Katherine was not as eager as I to spend more nights in cold tents, despite all the camping being her idea in the first place. Her feelings of animosity towards the prospect stemmed from her not being prepared for it. Here in the shop she would obtain a warmer top, and warm bottoms.

I suggested the mustard hoodie, which I was later told was actually, “gold,” in colour. She grabbed some warm track pants. Then, as luck would have it, we discovered there was a sale today of the buy two get one free variety. Due to this, I ended up with my very own, free, Yellowstone National Parks hoodie. Despite the sulking and complaining about colour choices for people my sized, I quickly came to love and adore it (though I kept this a well guarded secret for reasons unknown.) In return, I bought Katherine her very own Junior Ranger badge. Now the world can know that she, “Kathy” (a name which she despises, but the only option in the world of Jr. Rangering) is ready to inform people on the proper ways to... I don't know, bear proof their foods? Not get bit by rattlesnakes? That kind of stuff.

Finally – with all these buildings out of the way, we headed out on the Great Loop Road down towards Old Faithful. Apparently this is a big deal. It's the only thing I knew the park for – that there were field after field of other hot springs and geysers was beyond me heretofore.

As we past the hot springs, steam rising up into the air, we hit a clearing with a river running through it. Apparently a River [really does] Run[s] Through It. That was forced.

On the opposite side of the river a buffalo roamed. This was not where the ranger had pointed us. And yet there one was. We screeched to a halt to snap pictures. I stayed a safe distance back while Kath got close – too close, in my opinion. Cartoon images of Buffalo goring people aren't placed all around the park just for comedic effect.

Back in the car we drove some more, another bison. Then another. Then another.

The creatures were huge hulking animals the likes of which I could not have appreciated without seeing them alive, and in the wild. Grazers, they spend most of their time head down in the grass munching away. They are beautiful, and powerful. And they resemble nothing else I've ever seen. Their heads were as big as a child. Their whole body looked as if it could dwarf our car. Whether this was true, or just a trick of perspective, I couldn't know. But there they were, just wandering around, doing their thing, completely unaware with how spectacular that thing was.

It's hard to think this country was once filled to bursting with these creatures. Enough so that the natives could chase them over cliffs, killing them by the hundreds. What a sight that must have been. Hard to imagine that things could change so drastically, so quickly.

Now I feel privileged, being granted the opportunity to gaze upon them if only for a little while.

When we finally reached Old Faithful a sign informed us that the next blast would not be for forty five minutes. Around the gift shop we walked, before making our way outside. Together we all sat, people coming from around the park to see that which happens every 90 to 120 minutes. As the sun set, the geyser blasted off into the air. And there we had seen it, The Old Faithful.

It was over fast, but it was something to say you'd seen. Something to check off the list. Does that make it any less of an experience? Because it was one to be collected? I can't say. But with the sun down, and the colours muted, it wasn't as spectacular as I imagine it could be.

What followed was a painful quest to find food. You'd think it easy, but getting lost in a maze of parking lots and rapidly closing establishments did not make things easy.

When finally our hunger was sated we began the drive back to camp, eighty eighty kilometers from Old Faithful..In the darkest of night, I carefully wove the car around twists and turns, partially letting my mind go blank, partially aware that any number of animals could spring out from the bush in an instant.

I joined up with a convoy of a half dozen other cars. Together we drove faster than if we were alone, all depending on the car ahead of us to move out of the way, stop, or slow down, if an obstruction presented itself. Trusting in those ahead of my, I slowly began to relax. It was, of course, at that moment that all the cars began to switch into the oncoming traffic lane (blessedly empty.) Red tail lights slithered, like a terrible fire snake. At first I wondered why, but then I put my trust in them knowing the answers to that question.

As I pulled out, I saw what looked like a transient walking down the street, sauntering with a big cape pulled over his shoulders. In a park with this much hitchhiking such a thing would not be unheard of, though to do it at night?

As I neared, I saw this was no man, but rather a giant bison slowly ambling along the asphalt. With no care, trusting that all would avoid him, he was in no hurry. Out of the darkness, it was as if a ghost-buffalo had appeared before us. There was an eerie still, a loud silence, as we past. Katherine looked out through passenger window, as I focused on the road ahead. To her, it seemed the animal was the size of the car – I pictured its large eye looking into us, perhaps questioning, perhaps uncaring. winding back into our own lanes again, the chain of cars moved on while the animal seemed to fade back into the darkness from which it came.

When we returned to our camp site, the moment with the animal on the road, still strong within our minds, we wondered if we saw what we thought we saw. Had someone set up a tent on our site?

Walking up to it, it turned out someone had. Slowly, awkwardly, a man said that all the sites were taken, and could he share with ours? We sized him up. Perhaps he was a murder – but then, so too may those in the sites along side ours. And wouldn't a murder whom we helped be less likely to stab us in our sleep, than one we sent on his way?

Without any real thought, we said he could, of course, stay. He offered to pay but Katherine waved this offer away. I agreed. Enough people had helped me out this year, this was the least I could do.

He did move his tent from the perch, own to the lower area, and there he spent the night far more comfortably, than if we were to have sent him away looking for another place to sleep this late in the game.

In a sense Kath's earlier fear had been proved correct. But, had we set up our tent earlier, who knows how the night may have progressed for this fellow?

With day one down, we had seen a lot, experienced the animals, and marveled at the scenery. With tomorrow promising the be warm, with clear blue skies, we plotted to do what the ranger said was impossible – see Yellowstone in one day.

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