I am in the town of West Yellowstone waiting on 4 loads of laundry. I’ve just had my first hot shower in a week and I’m wearing a blue and white tyedye sarong and no underwear…. And it’s snowing outside the storefront. Our first snow. I only have to wait 20 more minutes for my undies to dry and I just finished a conversation with the owner, who has been here 26 years. I tried to garner a locals insight to Yellowstone and his favourite little spots. He pointed to a basin area on the wall map just above Old Faithful geyser, and spoke of hots springs where you can soak and gaze up at towering waterfalls. He spoke of wolves and bobcats, and breathtaking untouched wilderness, only reached by backcountry hiking. We have three kids, no donkey and it’s snowing, unfortunately I don’t think we will be able to make it there this trip.
We are heading into Yellowstone in early spring in order to beat the crowds. There is so much hype around Americas first national park, I’ve tried to do little to no research and have few expectations. However, coming straight from the laundromat, the first question I ask the ranger at old faithful geyser visitor and information centre is “Where are the easily accessible hot springs?” He hesitates, probably envisioning the hotsprings that he is headed to after work and says “Firehole river is closed due to snow melt, so there are none that are currently accessible.” I stare at him, he stares back, with a twinkle in his eyes. He knows I know he knows, where they are. You old hold out. I see how it is. There are more hot springs here than anywhere else in the world – there has to be a handful that are swimable. I read online about the Rangers soaking after work in wild hotsprings. It’s a conspiracy. I vow to myself that one day I will come back, find them, put them all on Instagram, maybe write a guidebook. I’ll dedicate it to this ranger.
We watch the old faithful geyser erupt, underwhelmed, just another geyser. This is the trouble with long term travel, hyped up attractions can be “meh”. We move on and before we know it we are totally engulfed in observing the wild bison.
At Yellowstone, we were introduced to the concept of the wildlife jam, which is a line of cars pulled off to the side or stopped on the the road, all looking at or photographing an animal. It has a domino effect. This concept can expose our gullibility and over eagerness – our herd mentality. “Oh they’ve pulled over, pull over too, what do,they see?” There’s quickly 3 cars pulled over behind us …. Is anything even here? No, The first car has pulled over to scratch his arse, suddenly he has a line of people gawking behind him, smart phones out. We always stopped at a potential wildlife jam, one day to see a herd of big horn sheep, resting not 20m from the road, on a hill. A few photographers had there tripods out and we were watching them from behind the trees. An eager Asian man pulls over and starts to yell and demand “Where is the wolf! Where is the wolf!” To which a photographer replies “No, sheep!” He starts to run towards them and another photographer, says in a hushed urgent voice, “Slow! Slow!” He nearly scared the whole herd away in his excitement. At least the photogs got some action shots, before they buried their heads in their hands and groaned. There is a second type of wildlife jam people, the ones who have been at Yellowstone for a week or two and wouldn’t pull over for just anything. They would slow down, roll down there window and yell out “What is it” to which I would simply turn around mime the animal to them. They can’t be bothered getting out of their car and I can’t be bothered forming words. To locals we were all ridiculous, and you could feel their eye rolls on your back, eminating from their huge pick up trucks.
To be honest if it weren’t for the wildlife jams we probably would have missed the two grizzlies and their cubs, the 2 brown bears, the fox, the wolves and the bighorn sheep. We would have missed them all. It was thrilling to see these animals in the wild, even if it was just off the side of the road.
The bison are a lot easier to find, they are not scared of people and will hang out at the visitor centres and right on the highway. Our first visit to Mammoth we saw a herd of bison and new born calves hanging out in the snow, right next to the hotel. There were 12 calves and some of them were a few days old. They had 10 photographers taking pictures of them, all with massive lenses. I sat their for awhile watching the scene. I thought it was foretelling, this is their lot as a bison of Yellowstone, they will get photographed for the rest of their life. Get used to it babies. In this civilised setting, they remind me of cows. Time to go to Yellowstone’s more wild side …. Lamar valley.
(To be continued)