Yes, we’re in Yellowstone and after a week or so of temperatures around the hundred degree mark this place is a shock to the senses. As we arrived, it started to snow. It snowed most of the night, the temperature dropped to minus nine and our ‘cabin on the lake shore’ was very far removed from the cozy billet we’d been expecting. The accommodation is basic. Okay, we get it, people come here to get back to nature, to commune with the wild. Maybe, we’re just wimps.
On the way in last night we saw a moose, two coyotes and several elk, including two who seemed very interested in what we were removing from our car boot. ‘Tell them to shoo,’ Marigold said.
They didn’t want to ‘shoo.’ At least they were friendly. Good job the persistent elk nudging Marigold in the back while she was trying to find something lost in the jumble sale remnants that reside on the back seat of the car wasn’t a bear. One of the staff, a really nice lad who drove the shuttle bus, was nearby and said ‘they’re feeling braver tonight, there were a couple of bears hanging around here this morning. Only brown bears, not grizzlies, but enough to make me jump when I saw them.’
The following morning was a winter wonderland. Or an icy wasteland, depending on your point of view. We followed a tour group along the path to the breakfast area. About a dozen, mixed ages, all kitted out in the best wilderness gear money can buy. We wore what we’d been wearing yesterday, with an ill matched extra layer to combat the chill. It didn’t even begin to defeat the cold. Perhaps there’s something to be said for advance planning after all. No, that would involve efficiency, carting clothes around that may never be worn and, worst of all, making lists. Lists are a step too far. As CJ would have said, many years ago to Reggie Perrin, ‘we didn’t get where we are today by making lists.’
The walkers were planning to hike the canyon, take in the waterfalls and venture off into unknown territory. When a sort of fat squirrel, about the size of a Jack Russel terrier, ran in front of them, virtually every one of the group screamed. Hope they don’t meet with a bear, brown bear, grizzly bear, whatever, as they appeared monumentally ill suited to a wilderness trek.
We caught them up, learnt they were all keen ramblers, pretty fit and well equipped. ‘Yes,’ I wanted to say, ‘but this is Yellowstone, not a woodland walk. It’s snowing, it’s cold and you’re frightened of squirrels.’ Obviously, I said nothing of the sort.
The paradox of Yellowstone, and of most other national parks in the US where wild animals co-exist with humans, is a matter of balance. Yellowstone is a protected wilderness where animals are free to roam, virtually at will. Adding people to the mix is where the problems arise because many of these wild animals can be hazardous to humans.
On safari in South Africa, by contrast, the animals are certainly no less dangerous, perhaps more so, yet the visitor is restricted to a seat in a Land Rover, there are armed game wardens in attendance and the danger is more a matter of perception than actuality. In Yellowstone, there are far less rules. People can, and do, wander around, away from the access roads, hiking through this self same wildness that is home to bison, wolves and bears. Surprisingly, actual deaths are very rare, but there’s always a possibility of a mishap. I looked up some figures in the visitors’ centre. It was quite warm in there.
Five known deaths have been directly attributable to bears within the park, plus another that occurred just outside the boundaries. There was also a note about a ‘possible’ bear related death where the victim had been ‘torn apart’ by some animal, but bears could not be specifically held responsible. People fall from high places, drown, die from exposure or just wander off and are never seen again. More people have died from being struck by lightning than have been killed by bears, bison have killed the occasional visitor too, but I found no evidence of killer elk. This is a wonderful place, but the threat of death or injury is ever present. This is a wilderness after all.
Yellowstone, as a concept, is magnificent. It allows people the opportunity to visit an untamed land while providing an illusion of accessibility. There are roads, souvenir shops, lodges and camp sites, yet the vast majority of visitors see only a tiny fraction of what’s out there. The animals are wild, those spouting geysers push scalding water from the interior of the Earth itself and if you wander off and get lost or break a leg, don’t expect an ambulance to come rolling up any time soon.
We’e pretty adventurous types. We’ve been deep into the Sahara desert, explored lonely mountainous regions, been there, done that, but decided we were not equipped to tackle the arctic conditions today, but would try and go back to Jackson an hour or so down the road and await better weather.
Inside the Park, the roads were passable with care, there’s tour buses on the way and fresh visitors awaited so the roads are swept of snow.
On the road, conditions were at about orange alert levels, but we reached Jackson without mishap and parked in a side street next to where a very large man was manoeuvring a boat on a trailer into his drive.
‘I should go and help,’ I said.
Marigold looked at the man, a sort of grizzly adams mountain man type who was heaving away at the boat and said, ‘go on, then, get a hernia, if you want. Bet he tells you he can manage perfectly well without any help.’
Off Main Street is a small Park and you walk into it through Arches of antlers. Hundreds of them. Inside were a vast group of people being harangued by a man with a microphone. Marigold decided he was a revivalist preacher, but it turned out to be an auction of paintings. High prices, into the hundreds for just about everything.
We didn’t make a bid,
Starbucks would have wifi, we thought, so we went inside. The queue at the counter was enormous. I grabbed seats, the very last pair, while Marigold stood in line. A woman next to me said ‘it’s good to have a servant, isn’t it? My man has been in line for a good ten minutes,’
She told me she was a school teacher, not one of the dedicated ones, and had visited London five times. Never been anywhere else in Britain, never been anywhere in mainland Europe, but just ‘adored’ London.
‘It’s so authentic, isn’t it? So Dickensian.’
I agreed, it would have been churlish not to, and said how impressed we had been so far with Jackson. She sniffed. ‘Jackson’s okay, but there are far too many people here with too much money. It’s not a real community any more. Just the other day I was talking to my neighbour and she told me they were intending to go and live in Aspen so they could ski with their own kind. Now, what’s that supposed to mean?’
I shook my head and looked around for Marigold.
‘What’s your opinion of our President?’ The woman asked, but was off again before I could answer.
‘Everybody we know voted for him,’ she said. ‘My sister lives in Kentucky and everyone she knows did the same. Yet all we hear on the TV is a bunch of LA types telling us we picked the wrong guy and we’re all responsible for the ills of the world. Let me tell you…’
I don’t think I’ve ever been more pleased to see Marigold arrive with her cardboard cups of coffee.
‘They got my order mixed up after waiting all this time so they didn’t charge me,’ she said, looking pleased.
Behind Marigold came a harassed looking man, the husband of the woman next to me.
‘Where have you been?’ She bellowed. ‘This little English girl came in ten minutes after us and she’s back already.’
Marigold finally noticed my frantic eye rolling and we switched seats as soon as others became available.
‘Give my love to London Town,’ the woman shouted as we left. Of course we will. She’ll probably be back in London before we are.
We popped into the grandiosely named Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on Broadway. If you’re a fan of cowboy films, the Old West, Country Music and dancing and everything else that goes with it, then this is the place for you. There’s a bar counter studded with silver dollars, bar stools shaped like saddles, a big dancing area, pool tables and was one of the sets for a Clint Eastwood movie. Everybody inside appeared deliriously happy to be here.
It made us cringe!
Obviously, the fault lies with us, but there you go.
I wandered around, looking the place over. Originally, it was Joe Ruby’s Tavern, which seemed a perfectly good name to me, but, as I say, we’re obviously in the minority here. There are photos of Country Music legends such as Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, all of whom have performed here, on the wall.
If I’d come in then, my opinion may have been very different, but this was a cold, wet lunchtime and watching people with two left feet trying to learn the intricate steps of Western dancing was never going to enthuse us. The murals were pretty good though and the silver dollar bar counter is impressive. Later, I discovered the silver dollars had to have a screw soldered onto the back before setting them into the bar counter as customers in the early days used to prise them out with their knives when the bar staff weren’t watching.
Back in Yellowstone, it was still snowing. We retired to our airless, featureless cabin with a view of the car park and sulked. We harped the option of joining a tour, making a partial loop of the Park, as they said in the office that the tour bus drivers ‘would get through,’ but that didn’t appeal. Even less so when we found out the price! No, we said, tomorrow is another day.
The next day was much brighter. We spoke to a couple outside who’d been on a pre booked trip yesterday. They didn’t sound too thrilled, had seen very little and most of the day was spent peering through misted up windows of the bus while their guide described what was out there, if only it could be seen.
We went off on our own, from our lake shore base. The lake itself is an impressive sight, now we’re able to see it. The clockwise route, that’s pronounced ‘rout,’ not ‘root,’ starts in earnest at Old Faithful. We’re familiar with geysers, New Zealand is full of them, but this was pretty special. There weren’t a great many people there so we had a good view. Seen it on TV, knew what to expect, but even so…
After the eruption – nothing more to see here for an hour and a half when it will erupt again – we went to the Upper Geyser Basin, studded with amazing hot pools in spectacular colours. More here than anywhere else in the world, a sign said. Just for once, we believed the claim.
The rest of the day was spent oohing and aahing at various marvels of nature. We had a fantastic day, loved every minute. Did we see any bears? No. Did we see any bison? No. Did we see a wolf? No. There are plenty of them here, but as we kept reminding ourselves, Yellowstone is a mighty big place.
Tomorrow, we’ll depart for warmer climes. Head south, see what’s there. Always a good solid plan in place.