Have I mentioned the weather was jumping all over the place out here? Mountains, I guess.
I woke up and lolled about Gillette, knowing I only had a few hours’ drive to the campground in Buffalo, where I would let the storm pass.
After a slow start, reorganizing some stuff, indulging in unlimited wifi and showers and taking extra helpings of fruit from the free breakfast, I went to the Rock Pile Museum, at my dad’s behest. It was actually very interesting.
I also found out that Gillette is one of the energy capitols of America – and that a small company my friend works for is HQ’d there. More signs from the universe.
Then I hit the road, figuring I’d make it to the campground with plenty of time to set up and then chill – spacing out the set up/break down as much as possible.
When I left Gillette, it was 76 and sunny. I was feeling good.
Just like the day before, it was rolling hills and sunshine most of the way, until a bit before I started getting to my destination, the Big Horn National Forest.
As I crossed into yet another unbelievably gorgeous and foreign-to-me landscape, I had to wonder if it was Narnia out here, or some other fantastical place? Or maybe the weather Gods just have a plan for me?
As I pulled closer to the mountains – mountains! – the skies began to darken.
“Oh no, do they have tornados on mountains?” (Your thoughts get weird when you’re alone.)
They have snow.
It is June, and I drove through an actual blizzard. At 10,000 feet. On a mountain top.
It was sleeting. Fortunately, the National Forest Service had built good roads. There were beautiful overlooks and turn outs, optimizing the park’s dramatic features – river canyons, mountain lakes, etc.
I rolled up to the campground in the middle of this.
I knew almost immediately I would not be staying.
First, it was sleeting horizontally across the beautiful lake, directly into the campsites. I was shivering. The weather showed no signs of letting up.
Then, as I was pulling up to investigate, a shabby creature shuffled toward me.
I’ve been in a lot of campgrounds, and this figure was not just camp dirty. His sweater was torn and soiled. His face hadn’t been washed in weeks. Of course, he ambled right up to my driver’s side window to ask if I’d seen the campground host, so he could get a forecast.
I kept driving.
It was exhausting, and I really wish I’d spent more time in the beautiful country I instead pushed through. It’s the closest to reactivating my old shoulder pain that I’ve gotten so far.
I made it to a WalMart in Cody, WY, “just outside of Yellowstone,” and got some food and called my mother, since I finally had cell service.
The Big Horn National Forest, Ten Sleep, the forest and river outside of the east entrance of Yellowstone – this is all beautiful country. I passed a wild mustang (horse) preserve. I passed a million different landscapes.
As I left Cody, the sun came out, lighting up the river that runs through the park before Yellowstone proper.
It is also one of the most active bear habitats in the country (world?), so you can only stay there with a hard-sided unit I was jealous of my cousins, who would be staying there in an RV in a week or so.
The thing about this part of the country is that everything takes longer than you think.
By the time I reached my campsite, down around the figure 8 that is Yellowstone, it was nearly sundown.
The drive was beautiful. Beautiful. It looked like something out of Tolkein. Then, the park is in the mountains – mountain tops. The drive in goes by the giant Yellowstone Lake. I couldn’t believe I was in America. There were mountains across this blue-grey lake, a color I’ve never seen and am not sure how to describe. It glittered in the sunlight.
There was still snow by the side of the road, too. More cold.
I finally got to my campground. I was nervous – this was my first night in Bear Country, as a billboard on the highway loudly reminded me.
Lo! The man who checked me in … went to Michigan State.
We talked for a while, about majors and life paths. He’s retired and he and his wife live in a RV there for the summer. Imagine! Living in Yellowstone. So cool.
This was my first night camping in bear country, so I grilled my new friend about it.
When you drive into Yellowstone, there are signs everywhere, with a giant bear paw print (including long, long claws) in the middle: “BE BEAR AWARE. FOOD STORAGE REQUIRED.”
Ditto when you pull into the campground.
The dumpsters and trash cans are different, too: they are special, bear secured ones.
Then, when you register for your campsite, you actually have to sign a paper that says you are aware you are in bear country, and will follow the federal and campground regulations for food and “other” storage.
The other is interesting and was the most surprising stuff I learned. Tom explained that the reason you can’t have water bottles in your tent is not because of the water, but because the bears like chewing on the plastic. They also are attracted to lots of scents humans now use in their cleaning and toiletry products: mint, etc. So you can’t brush your teeth or wash your dishes at the campsite – they provide “dishwashing sinks,” which are in a secured closet in between the men’s and women’s bathrooms. No bug spray or any toiletries in your tent – including chap stick. Crazy.
Feeling reasonably satisfied that I was where I was meant to be, and that the park and campgrounds were doing a decent job, so I wouldn’t be immediately eaten by a bear, I bid him adieu and got back in my car.
I instantly remembered my biggest Q and hopped back out and ran back up to his window.
“It’s okay to have bear spray in my tent, right?” I said, in a timid breathlessness brought on by terror and altitude.
He chuckled. “Well, they don’t like that taste much, so you’ll be okay.” I swear he winked.
I threw my tent up in the middle of the tenting field, loop D (there are ~450 campsites at this campground, one of five reservable ones in YS), put in the basics for sleeping, and got in and shivered. Cold and wet is very hard. Cold is hard enough, but wet sharpens the edge.
The shivers also probably came from being not quite sure what to expect on the wildlife front, but I had my bear spray in the tent with me, so I figured I’d at least have a shot of surviving an attack.
There were four young men at the site behind mine, around a large fire. Everyone else around me was families.
I finally fell asleep, and slept pretty hard. I’m sure my body thought we were going back into hibernation.