©2013 text and photos by LeeZard
Wednesday-Friday, July 17-19, Butte, MT-Yellowstone National Park-Rawlins, WY
My spirits are high as I drive out of Butte, MT. I love driving through this beautiful state, Big Sky Country indeed. I am excited to see Yellowstone National Park. Established in 1872, it was the world’s first national park. It’s been on my Bucket List since before there were bucket lists.
I am quickly off I-90 east and onto State Highway 359 south, a two-lane blacktop, speed limit 70 MPH. I love driving through this state.
SR 359 cuts through a valley in the Tobacco Root Mountains. This is cattle country with pastureland as far as the eye can see. Yellowstone Park is on the Montana-Wyoming border and the closer to the park I get, the more beautiful the scenery. Even though I am driving at 5,000-6,000 ft. elevation, the mountains are still breathtaking.
I pull into Yellowstone National Park at about 3:00 PM (MDT) and immediately see my first “Bison Crossing” sign. I love it. I use my Gold Pass to enter the park and look forward to setting up camp and exploring, only to find my campground is about 47 miles away. The good news, Old Faithful is on the way. The bad news, traffic, traffic jams and a car crash. Am I back in Seattle?
For a while, it feels like Seattle as I turn my engine off (waiting in a ferry line?) while the accident is cleared. Thirty minutes later I am on my way. The speed limit throughout the park is 45 MPH, 35 around campgrounds and popular scenic sites, of which there are many. Scenery-wise, the park more than lives up to its reputation but I have a bad vibe about the traffic and huge crowds of people. I’ve heard Yellowstone is jammed during the summer; I had no idea. I’m feeling some bad vibes; I foolishly pictured Yellowstone’s vast wilderness swallowing up the crowds. Hell, the park is 3,472 square miles (Link to Yellowstone Fact Sheet).
It takes me another 45-minutes to reach Old Faithful but the drive is exceptional. All the geysers, big and small, and related steaming fumaroles, are in one section of the park. Cars and RVs peel off one by one to view the lesser geysers but I remain faithful to Old Faithful. The smell of sulphur is in the air.
The parking lots around the world’s most famous geyser are ginormous and packed but I am a patient man with good parking karma. Many geyser gawkers look for space in the first lot they see; I am more optimistic and follow the walking throngs closer to the main attraction where, of course, there are more parking lots. Sure enough, two rows away from the information center a van is pulling out of my spot.
And here I must rat myself out, shamelessly unrepentant. Faithful canine road companion Trooper has one bad habit; he doesn’t play well with other canines, at least not at first. His first instinct is alpha dog and he’ll bark, growl and charge. The last time he did this, he slipped out of his collar and took off after a Pit Bull. Since then he’s worn an escape proof harness in which he can’t hurt himself if he charges. The harness is bright yellow. Can you see where this is going?
Many people stop me and ask if Trooper is a service dog. Until today, the answer was always, “no.” It is 97 degrees here and I will not leave him in the car to die. The National Parks are very strict about where dogs can and cannot go and I adhere strictly to the rules in the wild areas. In the visitor center and at the viewing area for the geyser, Trooper helps me WITH MY HEARING. The park rangers are gracious and sympathetic. Trooper is happy as can be and walks calmly at heel with a big grin knowing he’s in on the conspiracy.
Old Faithful is really Old Mostly Faithful. Trooper and I arrive just as the geyser is finishing an eruption. A sign in the visitor’s center tells us the next blow will occur in 90-minutes, give or take ten! I decide not to wait and proceed to my campsite, for which I made a reservation two days earlier. Good thing, too, everything is filled and I took what I could get.
Before arriving at the campground I noticed a gaggle of cars and RVs pulled off to the side, occupants out with cameras. This big guy to the right was the center of attention.
Another hour’s drive showed me what I got was what I now call the Yellowstone Park Ghetto. I register but before heading to campsite #497, I take a few snapshots of the “official greeter (left).” I’m sure the Park Service pays him either $10 an hour or a certain ration of whatever for the gig.
Lucky me; I get to set up my small domed tent with 499 neighbors, my nearest one only 20 or so feet away. The man of the van creeps me out. He sits staring blankly at the non-fired fire pit for much of the time. My bad vibes are vibrating louder.
I set up my tent amidst kids on bikes and skateboards, screaming kids and screaming babies. This is not what I signed up for (I know, ending with a preposition). I look at Trooper, “Ya know buddy, we may leave sooner than later. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.”
Tomorrow only brought more bad vibes, some of it my own stupid fault. For a few bucks you can buy a shower at Yellowstone. Let’s just say Trooper was ready to throw me out of the car so I paid the price and another two bucks for a sandpaper towel. The private shower stalls form a row along the wall and I found an empty one. After a week on the road camping in the boonies, I must admit it was heavenly.
After drying and dressing I left the stall and walked around the corner to the sinks to shave, etc. After a few minutes I realized I’d left my watch in the shower stall. I returned to retrieve it – gone. I’d been out of the stall for less than five minutes. Yes, it was my bad to leave it there, still; perhaps I’m too much of an FP (Fucking Pollyanna per the ex-mother-in-law) and I thought someone would turn it in. Gone.
Grumbling to myself about my stupidity, I headed to the parking lot and the 17-mile drive to Old Mostly Faithful. While I was in the shower house, someone apparently tried to break into the locked cargo box on the Jeep’s roof. There are two big hinges, one in the front and one in rear of the box so it pops open on the passenger side.
Rather than try to break the two cheap locks, our criminal attempted to pry under the rear of the box and separate the hinge. He – and I assume it was a he – was unsuccessful but the box was bent so far in that it was no longer sealed. This could be a trip-ender; no seal and the box would take in water when it rained. There’s no way I could fit all my stuff in the Jeep’s cabin. Fortunately, I was able to force the hinge back into position. The box remains bent but it is sealed-dodged that bullet. That was it for Yellowstone and me. It is a beautiful place, if everyone would just go home. I’d been in the park for 20-hours. I was done.
I was so pissed off I even considered blowing off the big geyser but how would I explain to my two mostly faithful readers that I was in Yellowstone and didn’t see the big guy blow. So back I went to Old Mostly Faithful, got the obligatory pix and headed for the south exit, 34-miles away, and into Grand Teton National Park on my way to family and friends in the Denver-area.
Teton Park is different; not as much traffic and much different terrain as I continued on the main highway south. Off to the west, the Grand Teton Mountains are simply spectacular.
I did pass a few gas stations and considered stopping. Once the gas gauge gets below the so-called halfway mark, it drops like a rock. It was dropping. Gas in the park is $4.59/9. YOIKS. I did the math. I could make it to the next town, barely. I paid 3.54/9 for almost the tank’s full 20-gallons.
The drive south through Wyoming is uneventful. It is mostly wide-open spaces, cattle ranches and open range. I want to make it to Rawlins, just north of the Colorado state line, spend the night, do some interviews and head for Mile High Country.
I was beat when I pulled into Rawlins and, gasp, no Starbucks. I guess Howard Schultz figures a town with a little more than 9,000 people isn’t worth it. Even worse, the closest National Forest camping was another hour to the east. No way.
There is a Kampground of America (KOA) in Rawlins. KOA is the Holiday Inn of camping with small cabins, RV and tent spots. Showers and all other facilities are part of the fee. Camping snob that I am, I’d never even considered a KOA but I was finished for the day, so hooray for KOA. What a pleasant surprise.
The fee is $23.00, same as a National Forest site. Yes, it is homogenized and squeaky clean but I was home for the night. As a perfect symbol of better vibes, when I opened my tent flap the next morning, a young deer buck was grazing about 20-feet away, his antlers only one point high. I froze, not wanting to spook him and he posed for some shots on the iPhone. I think he is my Petronus. Harry Potter fans will understand.
My nephew near Boulder works for Dun & Bradstreet and we’d already discussed the economic conditions in both Montana and Wyoming, so I knew going in that both states, because of their high dependency on energy production, missed a direct recessional hit.
My one interview, the owner of the only commercial espresso machine in Rawlins, confirmed it. “Between the oil, solar and wind power,” he told me, “the energy companies provide most of the state’s budget. That’s it for Wyoming, ranching and oil. On to Denver.