Well, here it is. The final installment on our adventures in Yellowstone. I know, I know, two months too late. But, what can you do?
Anyway, on with the story…
Breakdown in Yellowstone
On our way back from the Tetons, we stopped at a gas station and I shut the van off. We filled up the tank but the van just clicked when we tried to start it again. It was completely dead.
Thankfully, I wasn’t totally thoughtless about where we stopped (due to the previous problems we’d been having with the van, I didn’t trust it). I had stopped in one of the few places where we had cell service and where there was a visitor center just down the road in Grant Village.
I walked over to the center to see what our options were since the service center there was closed for the season.
When I got back, a car had stopped and they were trying to jumpstart our van — to no avail. It started but it wouldn’t stay running. Crap.
I started making phone calls, and found that the closest service station still open was in Old Faithful.
We had a couple of options: they could tow us to Old Faithful or the town of Gardiner, outside the park. Old Faithful would be less expensive, but we’d need to try to get a room there and it might take a couple of days for them to get parts for the van. I called the Old Faithful Inn, and they had a room for us at their snow lodge.
But when the tow truck driver finally arrived, he recommended we just pay to get towed to a shop in Gardiner — they’d be more likely to get the van fixed faster and he could drop us off at our cabin in Mammoth, so at least we’d have our stuff. Mammoth and Gardiner are only five miles apart, with the park border in between.
We had planned to look for wolves again that evening, and now that wasn’t going to happen — nor would it happen in the morning. As the amazing driver took us all back to our cabin and entertained us with park stories, I could feel myself trying to fight my extreme disappointment — and trying to fight the tears that were threatening to spill over.
This was nobody’s fault, but I was so upset because this was it, our big trip to Yellowstone. And now here we were, sans vehicle. I even looked into renting a car or taking an excursion. But it was late in the season, and it just wasn’t going to happen. Yellowstone is huge, and the only way to get around without a vehicle is to hitchhike.
Back at the cabin, we were all happy to have a change of clothes, but we felt a bit defeated. Dinner was a somber event that evening.
I was trying to stay positive. I told everyone that I was convinced things would be OK. I was trying to convince myself, as well as them. I told them we were going to go hiking in the morning, and then get the van back by 5 p.m., with enough sunlight to go for an evening animal scout in Lamar Valley before dark. I told them all we needed to do was stay positive.
The next morning, we talked to the repair shop, who said they’d try to get it fixed as quickly as possible. He wasn’t convinced it would be done by the end of the day, and I talked to the front desk to see if we could stay in our cabin an extra night, if needed. We couldn’t go too far without a vehicle, but we tried to make the best of it.
We hiked to the top of a ridge near our cabin, close to where we’d seen the bull elk the previous morning. After breakfast, we went on another hike near the Hot Springs, and then we explored the actual Mammoth Hot Springs. We agreed that we probably wouldn’t have explored the area nearly that much had we had the van.
Though the elevation posed some breathing challenges, it felt great to be back on a real hiking trail again, something with hills and valleys and rocks. Something that posed a challenge. I hit my steps goal before 11 a.m. and was pretty thrilled to be moving.
After a morning of hiking and a tasty lunch, we got the word. The van would be done by the time they closed, and we could pick it up. This meant that someone was hitchhiking to Gardiner. So, we hit up the front desk for cardboard and a permanent marker. Apparently, hitchhiking is so common in the park that when we told them what it was for they said, “We figured.”
Andy strapped on a backpack with water and extra layers of clothing in case he needed to walk for a long time. He initially strapped the sign to the backpack but switched to holding it. My dad and I walked with him to the edge of Mammoth, keeping our distance in the hopes someone would pick him up before he left the grounds.
Gardiner was only five miles away, but it was five miles down a twisting, turning mountain road with very little shoulder and definitely not pedestrian-friendly. I was worried for more reasons than one.
Eventually, Andy walked out of our sight, and my dad and I headed back toward the resort. We soon got word that Andy had been picked up by a nice gentleman. And before we knew it, we had a phone call that he was at the repair shop, and the mechanic was fixing the van as we spoke. I think there was quite a bit frustration on Andy’s part since he’s a mechanic and knew how to fix the van, but without the proper tools, his hands and skills were useless.
My dad, sister, and I were resting in the cabin after visiting a few places around the resort, my dad reading some stories from a book called Death in Yellowstone, all about the different ways people have died in the park, when we heard a noise outside.
Suddenly, the door opened and there stood Andy, smiling widely. He was back with the van. It was 5 p.m.
We jumped up in excitement, quickly loaded our stuff, and headed out for an evening of animal watching. The trip was salvaged and our bad experience with the van soon forgotten. We spent the evening watching the wolves across the valley — chasing a small buffalo before the herd moved in to protect it — before eating dinner in Gardiner once again.
The next morning was our last in Yellowstone, as we were leaving that day. But we’d decided to wake up early one more time to look for animals before we left the park.
We visited the wolves once again, seeing them in the very distance (one gray and four black ones).
We also spotted two coyotes, antelope, and bighorn sheep.
Andy and I walked to a different ridge to get a better look at the wolves before we headed toward the East Gate. We’d decided to take the long way out of the park (through the East Gate) and visit an area we hadn’t yet driven. It would make for a longer day but we’d get to be in Yellowstone for longer.
It was a good thing we took that route.
We ended up getting a good sighting of a lone black wolf out in a clearing, our closest sighting yet.
It was much easier to watch through our binoculars and scope. It gave me a chance to say farewell, since I hadn’t taken the opportunity when we saw the other pack in the morning.
Everyone wanted to see a bear again, and during our extended drive we stumbled upon a small group surrounding a park ranger who had his sights on a grizzly eating a bull elk.
The ranger told us to keep an eye out behind us because there was another bear in the area waiting its turn. As I looked through the ranger’s scope, the bear turned its head and looked directly at me.
It was quite amazing to watch the bear, knowing that it was feeding. Though we couldn’t see it actually eating, we watched as the dead elk’s large antlers shook on the ground.
We exited the park, but we didn’t get very far. We stopped at Shoshone Lodge in Shoshone National Forest to go horseback riding in the mountains.
Though we were outside of their normal ride times and hadn’t made a reservation (not knowing what was going to happen with the van), they fit us in for a private ride. We set off on our trusty steeds and saw the landscape from a different vantage point.
Then we hit the road again.
As we crossed into the Bighorn Mountains, we talked about how lucky we were to see the animals we had seen. Wolves, bears, coyotes, eagles, antelope, deer, sheep. We’d seen nearly everything on our list, except a moose. Our tow truck driver told us he’d been working in the park for five years and had only seen moose a few times. And we knew our best chance to see one had been in the Tetons, so we were trying to console our greedy, animal-viewing selves with the notion that we’d seen more animals than most people ever see there.
It was with this spirit of gratefulness that we headed higher into the mountains, where it was actively snowing and the mountain roads were becoming interesting to drive.
I was driving, and I’m not sure who spotted it first, but we all saw the bull moose standing close to some horses. We watched him spot our van and take off running across the snow-covered field, his long, gangly legs moving in a gentle, though not entirely graceful, lope.
Success! We’d officially completed our wish list of animal sightings. It was more than we could ever ask for.
We made it through the mountains and snow without issue, encouraging the van to keep on chugging. We spent the night in Cody, Wyoming, exploring the history of the old west and eating some very delicious food.
Then we set off for Deadwood, where we explored the old downtown area.
And we explored the nearby town of Lead.
We stayed the night at the Town Hall Inn in Lead, which was actually the old city hall.
At dinner that night, our last night, we reflected on the trip and shared some of our favorite moments. There were so many that it was hard to choose.
Some of the memories we noted were:
*Seeing a bunch of hawks lined up down fence posts during our drive, easily 15 or 20 of them.
*A fox running down the side of the road in the early morning
*Listening to the elk bugle at night near our cabin
*Seeing elk around Mammoth and watching the bulls — one got a little ornery
*Hearing coyotes at sunrise in Lamar Valley
*Watching the wolves nip at the grizzly bear and pounce on something in the field (mouse?)
*The smell of sulfur everywhere, like rotten eggs
*The wolves playing in the valley on the last night
*Watching a shadow “jump” from the car in front of us at night and realize there were buffalo crossing the road (their eyes do not reflect, so it can be quite dangerous)
*Watching the coyotes cross the river in the valley
*The last bear sighting when it was eating the elk
*The moose running through the snow
*Watching for cattle on the road while driving to/from Cody due to the cattle drives going on
An incomplete list of animals we saw (does not include all of the birds, etc.):
Wolves, black bear, grizzly bears, moose, bighorn sheep, antelope, mule deer, whitetail deer, prairie dogs, buffalo, elk, fox, coyotes, sandhill cranes, mouse, chipmunk, bunnies, bald eagle, golden eagle, hawks, vultures, crows, ravens, magpies.
Our last day was a very long drive home, but the adventure we had is something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.