You know how to find a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park? Just look for the traffic jam.
Sadly, that is not actually a joke. I didn’t take any pictures of the grizzly bear I saw, because I would have had to park along the road with dozens of other cars and my picture really would have been of lots of people taking pictures of a brown shape lumbering away off in the distance. Still, it was cool to see.
I also didn’t take any pictures of any of the elk I saw, not even the baby, or the mama bison with her baby for roughly the same reason. (The baby bison was so, so cute, though. Baby bison are adorable!) There are plenty of places to pull off the road and take pictures in Yellowstone, but on a Saturday and Sunday in June, they usually had plenty of cars in them. I admired the animals on my own slow drive-bys, but I didn’t stop.
It was still incredibly beautiful. And immense! I knew in my head how big Yellowstone was (bigger than the smallest two states), but driving through it makes it a lot more obvious. It did feel like I was driving through a state, one with spectacular scenery, snow-capped mountains, gorgeous blue lakes, and plenty of trees. Also plenty of people, but that’s how it goes.
And that was not a disadvantage for me, mostly. Remember my foreshadowing? On Saturday, I managed to snag a camping spot for the night at Norris Campground. The spot was small and slightly sloped, and the campground was full, but it was still Yellowstone. I actually took that picture of a bison from within the campground, while Z and I were out taking a walk. ( I don’t have a better one because Z was highly disinclined to sit still while I played at photography. )
My plan was to leave the campground as early as possible Sunday morning and head to Old Faithful, hoping to beat the crowds there. I’m willing to guess that even if all had gone as planned, there would have been no way to beat the crowds. And all did not go as planned. As I drove away from my campsite, the van started making a funny noise.
My first thought was that I’d left something loose in the back. I paused and did a quick check — what could be rattling around? But the silverware drawer (always a likely suspect) was closed, and there was nothing visibly loose and rolling. So I drove a little farther. Nope, definitely a weird noise. Paused the van again and checked the fan — could something have gotten stuck in it? I turned the fan off, just in case it was a problem with the cover rattling, and thought grim thoughts about hail storms and broken roof attachments. I started driving again and it was clear that turning the fan off had done nothing. So I paused again, in the middle of the road, and got out to walk around the van.
The problem was obvious, as soon as I crouched down and looked underneath. A metal bracket was dragging on the ground. I think — and I admit, I’m mostly guessing — I think it is a bracket for the generator, to hold the generator in place. Whatever it is, it’s not the kind of thing that you want scraping along the ground, as opposed to doing its job.
I thought bad words. I thought about wire and duct tape and zip ties and bungee cords. I thought about finding RV service places in the middle of an enormous park, at least fifty miles away from anything, and how much it was likely to cost to have someone come fix it, but how very bad it might get if that piece entirely stopped doing its job. And then I thought that at the very least, I needed to get out of the middle of the only road around that campground loop, so I carefully, slowly, drove down to the parking lot.
And the advantages of being in a crowded place immediately showed up. I’m going to guess that I had my head under the van for under five minutes, still trying to figure out what exactly this piece was and what it needed to attach to when a nice guy wandered over and said, “You need help?”
Yep, I needed help. He took a look, told me there had to be a piece with a bolt in it somewhere along my path, but that he’d zip tie it up for me in the meantime. I went back to the campsite where I promptly found a long metal rod with a bend at one end and a bolt at the other, and by the time I made it back to the parking lot, he’d already zip-tied the piece back in place. I showed him the piece and he said he needed to get his trailer set up, but he’d try to come back and help me with it.
I spent the next while waiting, while also figuring out how the piece worked, where it was supposed to fit, how it needed to go back into place, and trying to get the bolt loose. Basically the bent end of the rod hooked over a hole in an attachment on the frame while the bolt end was attached to the dangling piece. I have no idea why it worked its way loose in Yellowstone — I didn’t hit anything and I didn’t hear anything on the drive there — but I suspect my bumpy drive in Gallatin had at least a little to do with the problem. I theorize that it had come loose from the frame (maybe during the crunch I had in eastern Oregon several weeks ago) but was caught on one of the wires or hoses, and the bumpy road plus the slope of the campsite was enough to finally shake it free.
Anyway, I was just starting to reach the point of thinking that Helpful Guy #1 must have gotten busy with kids or campsite set-up or his own responsibilities and forgotten about me, when Helpful Guy #2 showed up. I showed him the problem and he went off to his campsite and came back with a set of wrenches. He told me he’d been carrying it around for 15 years and this was the first time he’d ever used it. I laughed and told him that my collection of tools was always for the last problem I’d had, never for the one I was currently having. But he loosened the bolt from the rod, and then we put it back into place, he tightened it up for me, and I was good to go.
It was a very satisfying outcome to a morning that had started out with an unpleasant sinking feeling. I think that unpleasant sinking feeling comes with some associated energy costs, though: the adrenaline high of “Oh, no, scary problem that must be dealt with immediately,” turned into an energy crash soon thereafter. By the time I’d made my way to Old Faithful and watched it spout on schedule (along with a thousand or so other people), I was seriously tired, and so sick of crowds of people. I like people-watching normally. I love situations where I can watch families and speculate on what they’re like, what their stories are. But not Sunday. I just wanted to be in a quiet place away from strangers, even nice helpful friendly strangers. So I got on the road and started driving.
It was another completely beautiful drive, this time into Wyoming. I was headed to Cody, where I planned to turn north to Billings. But along the way, I kept passing campgrounds and thinking, “I could stop there.” And when I’d been stuck behind a person going 55 in a 70MPH for a half hour that felt more like two, I let the impulse take me into the driveway of the North Fork of Buffalo Bill State Park.
There is no possible photo that could do this park justice, because it is one of those places with spectacular scenery in all directions. Also huge campsites, absurdly easy to get into. They’re all pull-through spots, parallel to huge grassy fields. My current spot could easily fit an enormous bus. And although I paid $35 for a water/electric spot, I’m actually worried about the water pressure — it blasts out so fast and hard that even with a pressure adapter on my hose, I feel like it might break something. That said, the water is delicious, so I am going to try to fill up my water jugs without getting too wet in the process. I think it’s the first time that I’ve ever had campground water that was noticeably good. (I’m not really a water snob, but I do notice what water tastes like.)
The showers were pay showers — $1.75 in quarters got me five minutes worth of water — but private, clean, and with (unsurprisingly!) excellent water pressure.
In fact, I liked the campground enough that I seriously considered taking a rest day. I’m still not entirely sure what my plan for this trip is — I seem to be vacationing an awful lot, instead of trying to figure out how to write (fiction) while on the road. Somehow, though, I found myself clean, packed up, and ready to go by 10AM.