Monday, August 24, 2009
It's a Wonder We Survived!
I'm sitting here, my hair twice-scrubbed, a load of laundry banging in the washing machine, and grateful to be alive. Yes, it was another hair-raising, harrowing weekend in Yellowstone National Park.
Actually, we only had a handful of staring-death-in-the-face moments. But if you make your judgment of Yellowstone's safety based on all the the signs and placards, you'd assume that, statistically, you have about a 50/50 chance of surviving any given day in Yellowstone.
You can get mauled by a bear. You can get gored by a bison. You can get trampled by a moose. You can get torn apart by a pack of wolves. You can even get rabies from the squirrels. Everywhere you turn, it seems that pretty much everything in Yellowstone--animal, vegetable, or mineral--has it in for you, and is out to cause your death in the most appalling and gruesome ways you can imagine. The earth's crust can crack open and swallow you up, camera and all. A mud volcano can explode and take you with it. You could fall into a boiling cauldron of steaming sulfuric acid. You could even get spinal meningitis and Legionnaire's disease from the geyser water run-off. Then of course there is all the old National Park standbys...drowning, hypothermia, falling ice, falling off a cliff, falling into your campfire, a tree falling on you, suffering heart failure on 329 stair steps of Uncle Tom's Trail. Believe me, all of these dangers we have seen posted and/or written up in literature in some form or another.
In spite of all these many dangers, toils, and snares, we really had a spectacular time.
The Dramatis Personae of this expedition included Jeremy & Brenda Reyes (the same folks who I wrote about earlier, who persist in this ridiculous notion of abandoning us for the East Coast) and their children Nora & Everett; Josh and Sharmilla Felix, and their children Madeleine and Ian; Phil and Julie Reyes (Jeremy's parents) who dropped by for a couple days; and myself.
Sharmilla and Brenda had left a day early, on Thursday, ostensibly to scout out campsites, but of course it turned into a girls' road trip a la Thelma & Louise, slipping the surly bonds of motherhood, hearth, and home, in search of adventure and freedom, whooping it up in an actual motel and fine dining and goodness knows what mayhem and mischief in that hip party town of West Yellowstone, with all its taxidermy shops and Montana kitsch vendors. Somehow, they also secured us some killer campsites (almost literally) at a great campground in Grant Village in Yellowstone park, where the rest of us joined them on Friday. (In our case, this translated into three men and four young children crammed into an SUV for seven and a half hours. Hooray for portable DVD players!) Phil and Julie, whom we'd not seen in weeks since they began a cross-country road trip, joined us that evening as their path happened to intersect ours on their way back to Utah.
We set up our tents (four of them) on our adjoining campsites. While other seasoned campers around us had tidy and austere campsites, we looked more like the Clampett Family had just unloaded a Gypsy wagon and created a refugee camp.
The first unsettling omen happened when we returned to our Gypsy camp the first night after attending a Ranger presentation, and discovered our campsite had received a citation. Yes, we got written up by the hall monitor, as it were, apparently for leaving clean, unused cups and utensils out where bears could get at them, and potentially sit at our picnic table and have an imaginary tea party, which is about all they could do with what we'd left out.
The citation provided us with something to help start our cooking fire with. And oh, what a meal we had. Chicken stewed over the open fire in a dutch oven, grilled vegetables, and more winged bugs than get eaten in a season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern. Of all the deprivations we might eventually experience over the weekend, food was not one of them.
Over the the next couple of days, we got to do a smattering of "the sights". We of course hit Old Faithful, which remarkably enough did not kill any of us instantly, as it does most viewers, apparently. We saw the Old Faithful Lodge, and poked around several of the other geysers in the area, also without dying. And we went on several hikes and saw some incredible scenery, and didn't fall off any cliffs (though every available hand usually had a child attached to it in some places). Then we'd come back to our Gypsy camp and make dinner (and always the kind of food that you miss when you're not camping--stewed chicken, hobos, grilled corn and vegetables...there's something about a cast iron dutch oven on an open fire grill...) and of course there were the flaming marshmallow torches for s'mores (more flaming death, narrowly averted!)
Then we'd huddle around the fire as the sun went down and the heat of the day became the chill of the night, but none of us expired from hypothermia (though it was close some nights.) The kids would play, climb trees, play hide-and-seek, sword-fight with sticks, all the usual stuff, until, with some protest, they were hauled off to bed. Wolves would howl at night (but did not tear us apart), and we'd occasionally hear the Nazgul-like call of the elk, and someone in one of the neighboring campsites snored in a way that sounded suspiciously like an angry bear. (Actually, this guy was in danger of being mauled by fellow campers.)
Things started to get adventurous on the last full day, Sunday, when we stopped off at the Mud Volcano. The site also has a short hike through a geyser-ridden valley, mostly on a wooden boardwalk over the fragile earth that was on the verge of swallowing us alive. We got most of the way up the small canyon and discovered that our pathway was cut off by a family of bison. They had secured the narrow passage like some bearded Taliban militia gang at Khyber Pass. When we looked around, we realized that were essentially surrounded by them, with their horns at the ready. Keep in mind, a couple hours earlier we had been rolling our eyes at all the dimwitted tourists who were ignoring the warnings about approaching bison. Now here we were, a group of a dozen or so friends and strangers, ten feet away from the beasties, praying they would show us mercy and allow us safe passage.
Eventually, after conversing among themselves with lots of deep grunts and apparently figuring that they had had their fill of disemboweling people for the day, the bison did step aside and allow us through, and we scooted on through. We then encountered a big steaming cauldron that spewed so much vapor that it left us with a visibility of about two feet for a ways (a bit unsettling when you have just encountered bison). We emerged on the other side of the steam bath to realize that, yes, sure enough, more Taliban bison were cutting us off. So we waited a while longer for this next group to cross the wooden boardwalk so we could move on. They finally did, but when had just gotten past the blocked crossing, a large bull bison changed his mind and apparently decided that we needed to die after all, or at least, change our underwear. He began charging us through the trees. We scampered like scared bunnies to a safer distance, but we found that we had had our fill of bison for the day.
As we headed back to the campground, it started to sprinkle. The sprinkle became a downpour before we reached our Gypsy camp. And by the time we got back to the camp, there was not a dry thing to be found. Rivers were running through the campsite, the place was a big mudhole, not a sliver of usable shelter for sitting or eating. Tents were wet, inside and out. A couple of tents were hastily moved out of the new rivulets, and a few of us scrambled to create a makeshift shelter by stretching a small tarp over most of the picnic table by stringing it from the trees, while others grilled sausages and cooked ramen noodles, unprotected, in the downpour. Happy campers, the whole sorry lot of us.
Anyway, somehow a fire managed to get lit through some ingenuity (and the liberal use of chemicals) and it offered a distant memory of warmth. The kids ate, and were then carried across the mud pit to their tents to go to bed, while we then huddled under the tarp and ate, and talked about all of the no-brainer items that we wished we had brought camping--you know, like a real rain tarp, weather-proof clothes, a hot tub, a motel, etc. We cracked open a bottle of aptly-named "Happy Camper" Cabernet. The irony did not go unnoticed, nor did the wine go unappreciated.
And by some miracle, over the course of the evening, our soggy faces were laughing again. And I remember thinking that it was a golden moment. It was much more unforgettable this way. It was great to share all the fun times, the death-defying adventures, and even the discomforts with these people. And with the Reyes clan's imminent departure, it was likely a last hurrah, which made it all the more meaningful.
As I was pondering these things, another deadly danger that was never posted ANYWHERE in the park showed up on our doorstep. A herd of federal rangers stampeded into the campground, with search dogs and shotguns drawn, and surrounded a campsite a couple lots down from us. We were too cold, wet, and bison-shocked to care much at this point. We eventually managed to get a sketchy version of the story. Someone from the campground, presumably the suspect they were after, saw them coming and bolted out into the darkness, and several agents went after him, while several others remained behind and held the drunken mates of the escapee at bay. So what can you do? We went to bed in the rain.
The next wet and drippy morning, we saw that the feds were still there, and apparently had apprehended their man, who was being carried off in handcuffs and leg bindings. All's well that ends well. We collected our soggy things, shoved it into the vehicles, and got a hot breakfast and lots of coffee in West Yellowstone.
It's worth noting here that until this weekend, Sharmilla had never darkened the doorway of a tent, nor was acquainted with anything that could, even generously, be called "camping." To even contemplate this trip was an enormous step out of her comfort zone, as indicated by her counting down the days until the weekend with a sense of dark foreboding. The prospect of that great trinity of terror--dirt, cold, and wild animals--loomed ominously in the future. I say all this entirely to her credit, because she actually stepped up to the plate quite boldly. And of course, we were kind of eating crow, since for weeks we had been assuring her that it's no big deal, that camping is fun, that the forecast was nice, that animals are more afraid of us than we are of them, etc., etc. And then we get attacked by an enraged bison (who was much less afraid of us than we were of him), and survive the ordeal only to spend the night in the freezing muddy camp with a crazed drunken murderer on the loose in the woods behind us. Cue Dueling Banjos. Well, I don't know if he was actually a murderer, he may have just been guilty of leaving a dirty cup on the picnic table.
Hooray for camping!
Check out my facebook album of the trip.