Thursday 13 February, 2020. Mammoth campground, space 58, Yellowstone.
Livingston is notorious for fierce crosswinds, and I was one of the last to get onto highway 89 heading south to Gardiner before the roads were closed down. Here, I faced a weather pattern unfamiliar to me. The winds blew east to west, whipping up snow from the plains. White veils whisked across the road like phantoms. There was plenty of traffic and the tarmac looked safe. Then, suddenly, I was driving on ice. A gust blew my Montero out of formation and as I steered to correct it, I immediately went into a 60 m/h tailspin. Letting off the gas, I steered in the direction I was going. There was a car coming at me and another one behind me. My car spun the other way and turned again, now bringing me off the left side of the road, taking out highway markers. Now I know what my last words will be, and it isn’t pretty. Suddenly, I shot backwards down the bank and came to a stop in the snow. A truck pulled over and a young man very matter-of-factly put a tow strap on my bumper and pulled me out, as if he’d done it six times in the last hour. My friends were detoured behind me and found cars off the road left and right. Soon it turned dark and with four sets of lights in my mirror I crawled along at 15 m/h in a complete white-out blizzard, emergency blinker on, unable to see where the road began or ended. In the distance I’d see deer and pronghorn crossing the road. It was like a video game but without the chance to start over. I’d had the biggest adventure before even entering Yellowstone.
Friday 14 February, 2020. Mammoth town parking lot, Yellowstone.
This is the best Valentine’s day ever. I write my journal while looking at a snow-swept Yellowstone in ultimate peace. There are parked cars of the fancy-dressed lodge guests celebrating their love. I wonder how many people will get proposed to in the park today. The luxury Valentine’s splurge sounds romantic, but I can’t say that having breakfast in a crowded room could ever out-do my morning of sitting on the hood of my car with fresh coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, soaking up the sun after narrowly escaping death. The sun gains power but snow still blows around, flaky and disoriented. I can smell the sulfur from Mammoth hot springs and through white pine I see steam rising from the Upper Terrace. Talking back at a curious Magpie and inviting questioning looks from a dressed-up couple, I think it’s time to go for a walk.
At the far end of the walkways a blizzard catches up with me. Once six people had given me suspicious looks after finding me crouched behind a tree, it was time to face the snow. I heard the Lamar Valley was closed down due to snow drifts. With nothing better to do and enthused to be outside, I faced the white-knuckled and wide-eyed drivers to see how far I could get. It must have just opened back up, so I drove to Cooke City, passing my friends on the way and not recognizing them. At the Bannock trail head I made coffee and wrote in the sunshine. I turned back west to find my friends all the way back in Mammoth. Talking with them I realized I hadn’t made a sound in 24 hours. Space and solitude are my enablers.
Saturday 15 February, 2020.
Up and driving before dawn, into the sunrise. The night had been frigid with a low of 8 degrees (-13 Celsius) and a patch of ice had formed on my mattress where I breathed all night. I kept the beer in the cooler to keep it from freezing and I had to stand on the tube to get the toothpaste out.
At Nature Trail the 8 Mile pack had taken down a bison and we watched them tear it apart while the rest of the herd stood idly by, as if to say, “We’ll be here if you’re still hungry later.” Or perhaps the elders were showing the kids, “See what happens when you wander off?”
There were biologists, other wolf nerds and the legendary Rick Macintyre offered to help me get out of the crowded parking lot. Wolf watchers seem less social than birders, but perhaps my impression was influenced by not personally knowing them, as well as the gnarly weather crunching their faces into antisocial stares. In one vane it’s easier to become a wolf nerd, because it doesn’t take any studying, whereas it takes months or even years to begin appreciating birds as you get better at identification. Birds are everywhere though, and so it can be done anywhere and anytime. The rare chance to see wolves in one of a few places in the world makes it much more exciting to see one, because you just don’t know when you get another chance to see a wolf.
After a nice long break and a short snowshoe at Pebble Creek, my friends taught me how to analyze snow-blown slopes to pick a good route, and what a drip line is.
It was brutally cold when we got back to the wolf pack at dusk, with wind blowing and light snow. Challenged to hold the spotting scopes steady and the snow blurring our view of the wolves, there is still something unique about the experience and my excitement kept me wanting to look just. One. More. Time.
At night, we hung out in my friends’ camper and ate camp food as if we were backpacking and drank whiskey before I crawled into my car, enveloped in a bundle of wool and feathers.
Sunday 16 February — a Three Dog Day
We watched the same pack of wolves still tearing away at the same bison for an hour or so. I was most entertained by the exquisitely rare opportunity to watch a wolf take a dump. Next to me was a Yellowstone wolf biologist with about five guests. Looking up from my scope to gauge her excitement, I yelled out “I saw a wolf take a shit!”
They responded with a blank stare, so I turned to my friend Cate, who emphasized: “Hm. Titillating.” The wolves played, chasing after each other as if they were just Labradors on a lawn.
We drove to Cooke City for breakfast. Sitting in the Soda Butte Lodge for a second cup of coffee, I tried to ascertain how best to describe the style assumed by the new Pakistani owners. Flashing, colored LED lights adorn this otherwise country western room that smells like ketchup. The view is epic, or I can imagine it would be if it wasn’t snowing.
I was very tired, but we drove an hour back to Specimen Ridge where I hoped to take a nap. We saw coyote and a red fox on the way, making it a Three Dog Day. The sun came out and with 30 degrees it was practically balmy, so I couldn’t pass up a nice snowshoe along the Yellowstone Canyon among Bighorn sheep and Whitebark Pine. Suddenly and out of nowhere, a 15-minute blizzard moved in. The horizontal wind and snow felt like razorblades to my face. It moved along as quickly as it had arrived.
We took another look at the wolves, who had left nothing but a hide after two days of feasting. Curiously, the other bison had moved on. It was cold but there was no wind and we were all alone, so we got some of the best viewing that evening. Ravens were eyeing the carcass, but the well-fed wolves leaped up to chase them off. After another cozy dinner in the camper, I tucked into the back of my car for the fourth and final night.
Monday 17 February — Boiling River
Sure enough, the day I’m going home the sun comes out. Having been trained to get up at sunrise by now, I walked to the Boiling River as my friends made for home. I had wanted to visit this spot for years, but the rumor of crowds had kept me at bay. I felt that 20 degrees and it being 7 am on a Monday might give me a shot at a good experience. I’m fairly spoiled when it comes to natural hot springs, having traveled to dozens of remote ‘baños termales’ through all of Latin America.
There were just three other people and the rising steam disoriented me enough to enter the river far from the heat. Clumsily making my way through bipolar waters, I found a solitary tub out of view from the others. I added some rocks to keep more hot water in and watched the elk, American dippers, mountain chickadee and a belted kingfisher passing by. After four days of being cold, the hot water brought my core temperature back to its normal level and I felt truly blessed. This had been a memorable trip for so many reasons. I’d come to get to know my new friends a lot better and we had laughed a ton. The experience of sleeping in my car had been good and adds a lot of travel flexibility. I saw my first wolves eating, playing and pooping. I could see myself doing this again.