Monday, May 23, 2011

Head West, Young Man (Part II)

     I paid $25 for a seven day pass that gained me access to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park. I didn't mind paying the fee, as I was now the proud parent of a park employee and realized those fee dollars were being put to very good use. With Bro following behind in his loaded- up car, I put my brand new Nissan Rogue on cruise control at 45 MPH and started into the Tetons.  Snow capped mountains that had once been looming in the distance were now  casting shadows on the road, and the massive peaks of Grand Teton and the Cathedral Group were  clearly visible on this cloudless afternoon. As we approached the turnoff for Jenny Lake, Bro and I pulled over to snap a few pictures.  I made him stand in the same spot  where I had photographed him years earlier. The mountains and scenery hadn't changed in fifteen years, but the subject I was most interested in was taller and more self-assured than he had been at age five.  Seeing my grown son standing so confidently in front of the towering mountains gave me a feeling of security that I needed, a hint that it would be alright to turn him loose in the wilderness and on his own.
    We drove the loop around String Lake and Jenny Lake, both still completely frozen solid even though it was the middle of May. Patches of black ice dotted the road where snow-melt had refrozen, and stopping to take pictures began to be a little more perilous as we slipped and slid across the ice, a sure sign it was time for us to move on.  We finished driving through the Tetons without stopping for any more pictures and without seeing any wildlife other than a few shaggy buffalo that were beginning to shed their winter coats. 
The snow began to pile higher and higher on the sides of the road as we gained altitude heading into Yellowstone. The temperature had been steadily dropping since we left Laramie that morning, the thermometer on the car was hovering  at around 34 degrees, and as we started to climb through the pass from West Thumb to Old Faithful, the road became nothing more than a narrow tunnel carved out between towering walls of snow. Being a southern girl who thinks a dusting of snow qualifies as a blizzard, I was quite impressed with the fact that I was so nonchalantly driving  through mountains of snow with nary so much as a chain on my tires or four wheel drive. I congratulated myself for having graduated into the the rank of all-weather, marathon, cross-country,  professional road hog.
     We cautiously crept over the pass until we finally spotted the first puffs of steam from geysers that dotted the hillsides around Old Faithful. The snow was less prevalent here as heat from thermal activity warmed the ground considerably, and as driving became less intense, I began to scan the horizon again for any signs of animal movement, but only a few raggedy buffalo grazed in the distance. As we pulled into the inn, the name-sake geyser was just beginning to erupt. I couldn't help but think it must be a good sign that Old Faithful was welcoming us into the park with such a spectacular fanfare. Plumes of steam and a tower of water blasted straight up into the sky, right on it's predicatable schedule, and it was quite an impressive sight to behold as we parked the car and stood for a moment to watch. 
     It was a little past five o'clock, and even though the drive had been long, there would still be several hours of daylight left and it was the perfect time for animal watching.  Bro and I checked in at the front desk, grabbed a couple of room keys, and headed straight back to the car without so much as a glance at our rooms.  We wanted to see something big and hairy before it got dark- preferably a grizzly or moose- and there was no better time than dusk for animal gazing.  We drove past the Firehole River, where streams of smoke from geysers and steam pots permeated the air with an egg-like scent of sulphur. Buffalo roamed and grazed in spots where the thermal activity had melted enough snow to reveal coarse tuffs of old grass.  Several cows had caramel-colored calves close by their sides, and we laughed as we watched two of the youngsters playing chase around their mother's massive bodies.  The hooves of the young buffalo barely touched the ground as they leapt and ran, giving them the appearance of floating across the earth as they relished in their childish games. The mothers just plodded along, oblivious to the ruckus the calves were making, concerned only with finding another mouthful of the grass which was needed to keep up their milk production and to propel the endless cycle of eat, feed, eat, feed--a cycle that was driven by the hunger of both mother and child.
     We drove towards Madison Junction, then made the turn left that would take us by the Madison River and into West Yellowstone.  We knew this road would be a good spot to see the trumpeter swans that nested by the banks of the river, monogamous birds that mated for life and returned to the same nesting spot each year.  We were not disappointed, as the swans were exactly where we had left them on our last trip out west. There was something comforting about watching the great white birds, knowing that they were loyal and majestic and constant, traits seldom found in our own species, much less those of lesser animals. They embodied beauty and purity and goodness and gave one a feeling that there was hope in the world.
      The trip into town yielded no other wildlife, but we knew that a couple of good buffalo steaks were waiting for us at the Old Town Cafe, a local grill that we had frequented in the past because of it's prime beef and one of the best cowboy breakfasts around.  Once again, we were not disappointed as we cut into our tender and tasty buffalo, completely undisturbed by the fact that we were eating the same massive beasts we had photographed only moments earlier. With full stomachs and the last remnants of daylight lingering still, we headed back into the park for our last effort of the day to see something impressive. 
     We had only gone a few miles when the telltale sign of a bear appeared. Up ahead,  a line of cars had clogged the road,  and people were  parked on both sides of the street. Some were leaning out of windows, some were running down the edge of the street,  and cameras of all sizes and sorts were clicking like mad.  Immediately, we knew there was a bear. We edged between the line of parked cars and got as close as we could, rolled down the window and asked the most obvious question of the day, "What do you see?"
     "Bear," the nearest man whispered. "Over there, in the woods."
      He pointed to a spot about ten feet down the road.

Bear seen on road to Mammoth the next day

      We crept a little further down, both of us peering into the darkening woods, when suddenly, I spotted a slight movement in the underbrush.
     "I see it!" I almost screamed, wildly pointing and gesturing to those around me. The backside of a  bear was barely visible as he lumbered through the thick growth of trees and brush. He was casually pawing the ground and grazing for tidbits as he walked, seemingly oblivious to the crowd gathered around him, and he quickly slid out of view as he headed deeper into the forest. 
     It was not the best sighting of a bear, and sadly, Bro had not been able to get a good glimpse of the creature from his side of the car, but it had whetted our appetites and we now knew that bears were out there, and we were going to find them.
      It was the end of our first day in the park. We had travelled over 2175 miles and had safely arrived at our destination. In one day, we had seen more snow than in a lifetime, had watched geysers erupt and thermal pools steam, had viewed nesting swans and grazing buffalo, and had seen just a hint of a rambling old bear. With a few good pictures and  two very tired bodies , we cranked up the car and headed back to the Old Faithful Inn. Tomorrow, Bro would move into the "fish dorm", his summer home on Lake Yellowstone, and we were both in need of a hot shower and a good night's rest. There was much to be done the next morning, and it was time to call it a day.

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