Driving toward Hayden Valley, legendary land of Yellowstone’s wildlife, I decided to temper my hope. I would, I thought, release my expectations. I wanted to see critters. That’s why I was awake before the sun, why I was already on the road by six something, but I knew better than to hope. Mercury was in retrograde. It had been a bad year and a worse month. I’d see critters or I wouldn’t. By that point, I’d spent two days wandering around the park hearing sticky children and their snot-nosed parents screech about wanting more, more, more from the park’s wild inhabitants and I refused to count myself among them. I swallowed a sip of coffee, inhaled a heavy breath and let it go. What was to be, would be.
Then, brake lights up ahead, a car stopped on the shoulder. Critters, I thought. And there, on the shoulder, grizzlies.
I’d never seen a grizzly before. My life is a catalog of black bear sightings and black bears are a different kind of bear. They’re smaller. Dangerous still, but less so than a grizzly. You can fight a black bear and win, or at least survive, but good fucking luck to you if you come to blows with a grizzly. You’re supposed to fight back if attacked by a black bear, but the only time you ever do that with a grizzly is when you’re real sure the thing is about to kill you. And so there I was – in a tin can of a car – too close, against the rules close, to two grizzly bears.
The grizzlies, for their part, didn’t seem to give a shit. They just kept going about their grizzly business, swinging their heads as they chopped roadside flora. They skirted the road until meandering their way through the line of cars that was stopped to gawk at them. They could take us, they knew. We weren’t a threat, us tiny humans in our tin cans.
Check, I thought, as I drove away. Goose pimples still prickling, I was relieved. I’d made peace with seeing nothing and then I saw grizzlies. Two grizzlies. It wasn’t 7 a.m., and I’d already won the day.
The Hayden Valley is busy in the morning. The critters do critter things while people flock to the roadside to see what they can see. Those people are varied. Some come with gift shop binoculars, hoping to see any sort of thing. They creep by the crowds, necks craned, windows down, imploring, “what is it, what do you see?!” Is it worth it, they wonder, to park, unbuckle, and meander over?
Others have been there time and time again. They can tell you about the wolves they saw back in 2017, the bears they encountered in 1994, and the special way the light hit Old Faithful back in 1982. They have patience granted by retirement and can sit in their camp chairs or peer through their high-dollar scopes and regale the rest of us with their stories. They want to talk. They want to share. They love this place and if you’re a long-haired hippy witch who pops up one morning to see the sights, they’ll reel you in.
“Wolf,” they’ll say.
“Where?” you’ll ask.
“There,” they’ll say, pointing and guiding you in via the landscape. “Down and left from the naked tree. Wolf.”
And sure enough, just there, a wolf.
Again and again, we watched as this single wolf taunted a herd of buffalo until finally, sick of his shit, the buffalo charged. The wolf, all black, skirted back, up and away from the herd and continued on with his wolf business.
I felt lucky. Two grizzlies and one wolf, I thought. And it wasn’t even ten.
I drove back and forth through the valley a handful of times. There was so much to see. Every time I felt ready to leave, another view, another crowd, another critter would stop me. I took a bathroom break and took advantage of a big parking lot to make myself more coffee and as the water boiled, a hurried couple came into the parking lot. “Bear’s coming,” they said.
I folded my stove, grabbed my camera and leaned against my rental. Waiting, I figured, was better than wandering down the road in search of a bear and after 10 or so minutes, a bear showed up, this time a very busy black bear, the kind of bear who did not care about his distant audience, but who also showed off his exceptional tree balancing skills as a small gaggle of humans watched.
As I made my way out of Hayden Valley, I stopped on the shoulder to watch a herd of buffalo. They were all standing at the banks of the river, pondering buffalo things. Then, after reaching some sort of consensus, one buffalo moved forward, into the river. The others watched. No other buffalo entered the water until that first one was all the across and out of the water. Then, the herd moved. Calves stuck close to their mothers and they all stayed as true to the original path as they could, patiently waiting in line for their turn to cross.
Just out of the valley, I hit traffic. A park service vehicle was blocking the road up ahead. I didn’t even wonder why. I’d seen wolves and bears and buffalo and pronghorn and and and. I didn’t think there’d be more, until a sow and her two cubs scampered across the road.
The next morning, I broke camp early. I figured I’d take my time making my way back to Bozeman for my flight, stopping when I felt like stopping. I also badly needed a shower before sitting next to other humans on an airplane.
I’d barely been on the road for 15 minutes when I saw movement in the trees. I pulled off, and there, again, was a bear. A goodbye bear, another black bear. This one was in a hurry. When I spotted him, he was across a field, skirting the tree line. He moved parallel to the road, quickly. I followed along for a while, stopping at every pull-off to watch him move through the woods. A few others saw me watching and stopped, too. They took a few pictures and moved on quickly, just like the bear.
Finally, I was ready. It was time to go home. I said goodbye to the bear, goodbye to the park and headed north.