In spite of my under-planning, my travel day goes well, with no hitches to speak of. The flying weather is clear nearly all the way and I can recognize many landmarks. I read Geyser Gary's Fairyland trip report which gets me in the mood for Yellowstone. On the short hop from Salt Lake to Bozeman and I am treated to a lovely view of the Tetons from the air. I can see the gold of aspens in the creases of the mountains and the traces of rivers far below. But there is no snow anywhere.
As we come down to land we fly low along the Gallatin and I am treated to the sudden beauty of fall colors, willows, aspen, cottonwoods and low brush along the blue, blue river. I have now seen Bozeman in all the seasons and I love every one. I could live here; yes, I could.
My first wildlife sighting is right outside Bozeman on I-90; a large hawk sitting on a fence post beside a field. I was about to say empty field but I'm sure the hawk did not find it empty! All along the road to Livingston and on to Yellowstone I am delighted by indescribably beautiful color combinations, not only along the river but also on the slopes of either side. Very different, of course, from what tree-peepers of the East see in the Berkshires or the Adirondaks, but just as spectacular to me.
The Yellowstone has lost volume yet seems to hold the same strength. It may be something about the scarcity of water in the west; it seems to hold an extra vitality. There are numerous water birds in the calmer curves and I see hawks and ravens overhead. I see more horses than ever before; piebalds and chestnuts, palominos and greys and one great bay that kneels and then flops over on his side to lie contentedly in the warm sun.
I am the only one on the road and I make great time. I pull into the driveway to Ft. Uhler and luckily find Carlene at home. She greets me warmly and we visit. She says John and Rachel are in Gardiner at Rachel's soccer game. Then she gives me the distressing update about their house being sold from under them, their frustrating search for a suitable home in Gardiner and her travails with the Gardiner Town Council. I hope those folks put Carlene in charge soon. She is a born leader. I also hope she gets her wish, to find a house in town. Privately I ask my Mom to work on that!
Note: I am now happy to report that not two weeks after I left the Park, the Uhlers found a home, and have moved in already. Thanks, Mom!
A word about my car - I considered not mentioning it as it was a severe embarassment to me for the whole trip, but since it has provided such comic potential I figure it's better to include it. Avis rented me the most hideously ugly car ever built. It's called an Azteca and believe me, it is as big an insult to that mighty culture as all the deceits of Cortez. Plus my Azteca is white - neon white. It is hideously "modern" looking yet without any attendant sleekness. It is chunky, clunky and snub-butted. And worst of all it has a bizarrely placed metal bar that runs smack across the middle of the back window which totally significantly reduces the view of the road behind. I think it may be payback for my past rental luck. I will henceforth refer to this vehicular monstrosity as F'Ugly. Yes, it's a contraction.
In fairness, I must report that F'Ugly drives fine and is not quite the gas guzzler as were SUV's past. And she is roomy enough for all my gear. But every time I park and glance back as I walk away, I die a little death.
I hug Carlene goodbye and head south to Mammoth. As soon as I see the familiar mountains I get tears, happy tears, you know. I make the turn so that my actual arrival at the Park through the Arch for tradition's sake. I pull over and look out at the bare, sensual hills of the North Entrance. The Mogul Hills, I call them as they remind me of the rounded bumps you see on ski slopes. These are covered with a wispy-looking blonde grass which bends gently in the breeze, in contrast to the darker brown earth beneath it. It is soft and subtle and very beautiful.
I proceed to the Gate and have a friendly conversation with the lady Ranger there. I wind up the road into The Yellowstone. At once I see that the color here, though no less beautful, is what I would call past peak. Most of the aspen here have lost their leaves. They are strewn on the ground and make a bright yellow carpet next to the bronzes and oranges and purples of willows, and there are bright red bushes of some berry, too. I must say I have never been so impressed with Gardiner Canyon. I see a pronghorn on a distant hill dashing to the right and then see a number of cars stopped around the first bridge. I drive slowly past them and pull over myself. Aha! It's a bighorn jam!
The day is quite warm and it seems that the sheep have come down for a drink and are now headed back up. It is a rather large group. I count 12 animals, no rams, mostly ewes and various short-horned youngsters. One has a collar. As I watch, a group of four head up a hillside and are about to leap a long crevasse. I click a few shots as one by one they casually bound over the gap.
I notice another group further down under the shade of a tree nibbling at some still-green leaves. The smallest yearling stands close by its mother, with perhaps its older sibling nearby. I think of what Doug could make of this opportunity and do my best. This is where I notice the first of my poor-planning mistakes. My camera's light meter is not working. The battery is dead, probably because SOMEONE left it in the "on" position for probably several months! I do not hold out much hope that I will find a battery here compatible with a 25 year old Minolta. The camera itself works, but I have to guess at the settings. I look at the sheep and the sharp shadows and realize nothing in the camera could mitigate that anyway so I just point and shoot!
The sheep begin to climb higher and I just watch them for a while. I have heard others talk about seeing sheep close to the road here but it;s the first time for me. I take it as a sign of good animal luck. The sun is warm and intense on my east-coast skin and it feels heavenly! I hear a passing couple refer to the "pronghorn sheep" and I smile.
I head up the rest of the way up the Canyon and see quite a few tents and RV's in the campground. There is a single spike elk in the woods just before the top. Then I see the fabled resident herd of Mammoth. Most of the cows rest in the shade of trees near the housing, and I spot one, two, three large bulls standing guard. I wonder how they work that out?
There are numerous folk stalking them with cameras but all at a safe enough distance this afternoon.
Upon checking in I find a message that Mark R has had to cancel his plans. I am very sorry to miss him, but it was thoughtful of him to let me know. His message includes a request that I do a Druid dance for him and I do, as you shall see. I ask the clerk if Mammoth could consider staying open longer due to the fine weather. She says no and I detect that she may be eager to get to her own home. This is the final weekend for Mammoth until mid-December when they re-open mid-December for Winter ski and snowmobile season.
As I pull in to my cabin driveway I see another guest with a raised camera, aimed at the lawn. There, not five feet from my cabin's front porch is a darling young elk, a spike, happily grazing the lush non-native grass. Now THIS is a proper welcome!
His grazing moves him step by step away from my porch, but he is still too close for my comfort so I gather my things and decide to approach my door from the other side. My choice pays off and as I round the corner to the lawn, the handsome spike has moved at least four more feet away, enough for me to get to the porch and inside the cabin. I keep my eye on him as I go, wary of any sign of distress or agression from him. He sees me but his head stays down, contentedly grazing.
As I am arranging things inside I see through the opposite window some guests arriving with a beautiful dog on a leash. It's a German shepherd-type, with coloring very much like a grey wolf. Suddenly from the porch side I hear a sharp cough, the sound I recognize as an elk-alarm. I pull aside the curtains and see young Spike standing at full alert, ears forward, eyes and nose fixed on the dog. I guess I'm not the only one who sees its wolf-like resemblance. The Spike remains stock still like this for several minutes, long enough for me to get my camera and click off a dozen shots. He is so gorgeous and strong and fierce. At one point he extends his back legs like a champion horse at a show. I don't know what purpose this serves but it is cool to see. Finally he is satisfied that the "wolf" is no threat and goes back to grazing. His behavior seems to me a tribute to the return of wolves to the Park. I suspect this fellow will not be an easy catch.
I have plenty of light and time to head to Lamar so that is what I do. The scenery is stunning and I enjoy the drive immensely. I stop on the way up the Blacktail Plateau at the trash can pullout to put Layla together. She seems glad to be back, too and doesn't give me a lick of trouble the whole trip. I find two bull elk far away on a hillside and enjoy the soft breeze. The rest of the area seems empty of animals but I know the Leopolds are out there somewhere, probably napping.
On I go and just past Phantom Lake I have to brake for three mule deer crossing the road. A bit further on I notice a lone bison heading uphill. I wonder as I pass what might happen to the next driver when Mr. Bison reaches the blacktop. My next stop is at Hellroaring where I find a handful of folks, two with scopes. I join them in watching three pronghorn and a sleeping bull elk. The area near Tower seems the driest of all. I cruise on across the Yellowstone Bridge and into Little America. I see more pronhorn here. Three cross the road up ahead and break into a short gallop across the sage. More lone bison appear on either side and I notice the Boulder Pond is completely dried up. I see another lone pronghorn out beyond the aspen as I near Slough Creek.
There is a crowd on Dave's Hill so I pull in and try to see if I recognize any Loons. I don't, and more importantly, from the set of the scopes and the attitude of the scopers, I convince myself they do not have wolves in sight.
I drive on through my most favorite section of the Park, up through Lamar Canyon and around the magical corner. Lamar Valley is dry and golden and SO beautiful. The tears begin again. I drive slowly, unencumbered by cars behind me. It feels as though I am in the warm, welcoming embrace of this vast beloved landscape. It is quiet and soft and calm and I watch time slow down right before my eyes.
The grandeur of Lamar Valley makes me feel so delightfully insignificant. Life goes on here, steadily, stoically marching forward since I was last here to gaze upon these peaks. Dozens of animal lives were lost and dozens more were born, grew and learned the ways of the river, the hills, the sun and the stars, what plants are sweetest and most bitter, what paths are swiftest and what slopes hold danger.
I take my time and try to take it all in. Still, my first cruise through this valley is almost always a bit surreal and today is no exception. As much as I gaze a photos of it sitting on my desk, the actual view is always greater than my memory and it takes a while to adjust. I decide to drive as far as Pebble and then turn around. But when I get there I only want more so I go a little further up to the Thunderer pullout. I am rewarded with a trio of mule deer, a doe with twin fawns who have lost their spots and grown into their shadowy grey coats. They stop in the trees a dozen yards away to turn and look at me.
The light is breathtaking on my drive back; the cliffs of Mt. Norris turn peach and the sage becomes golden. I see clumps of watchers at Footbridge and Hitching Post and later learned that I missed Charles, Tonya, Mark and Carol, but at this point I am beginning to think of dinner and bed. I scope at Dorothy's for a little while, watch a herd of bison at the rendesvous and just enjoy Lamar's rugged beauty.
Then I head back. More mule deer say hello along the road in Lamar Canyon and three pronghorn cross in front of me going north in Little America. I lose the light sooner than expected and this makes driving a bit harder for my sleepy and hungry condition but I make it back to Mammoth without mishap. Now I am anxious to see a Loon or two and remember that I promised dinner to Doug Dance. Silly Wendy, I have made no more specific plans with him beyond "let's have dinner" and I have don't know where he's staying. At the Mammoth Dining room there is a 40 minute wait. I don't think I can last that long so I blow it off.
I walk back to my cabin as the moon rises cool and bright. Mars twinkles close by, still extra bright and there are many, many stars, boldly competing with the moon in the deep dark sky. Spike is gone but I can hear the distant bugling of the bulls. I have hot soup and tea in my cabin and write some notes, then settle into bed for a cozy night's sleep. It is warm enough to have the windows open and through them come the eerie, ethereal sounds of elk singing me to sleep.
Today I saw: antelope, 12 bighorn sheep, bison, deer, ducks, elk, hawks, ravens and one Loon.