A Modern Discovery of the Great American West: Part I

One Hell of a Day in Yellowstone

We woke up before dawn to snow piled high on the rainfly of the two-person tent we were to call home for the next three weeks. It was our fourth day of the 4,000-plus mile journey that would eventually take Keira and I across the American West to seven National Parks and ten states that included Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Unknown to us at the time, the experiences that lay ahead were numerous and life changing, but at that moment, taking down our tent in the frigid cold, we were over it.

Our first three days in the northwestern reaches of Wyoming went as follows:

DAY 1
·  Arrive in Grand Teton National Park
·  Setup camp at Jenny Lake
·  Meet George the Elk (George = awesome campsite companion with zero respect for personal space)
·  Hike around lake, eat dinner, sleep
·  Weather: Rain

DAY 2
·  Drive north to Yellowstone National Park
·  See near-roadside sights on way to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
·  Hike south rim of canyon
·  Setup camp, curse at RVs with generators, sleep
·  Weather: Rain

DAY 3
·  Do touristy “must-sees” in Yellowstone: mud volcano, fishing bridge, old faithful, Mammoth     Springs, etc.
·  Hike
·  Setup camp outside of Mammoth Springs
·  Become terrified of protective mother elk, eat, sleep
·  Weather: Rain

As we took down our nylon home in the snow, we could do nothing but hope the day we had planned would offer some consolation for our current luck with Yellowstone's weather. Our plan was to drive out to Lamar Valley – the Serengeti of the West – to see bison, elk, moose, wolves and, we hoped, a damn bear (there is a rant here that I won’t go into). After oo-ing and ah-ing over Yellowstone’s mega-fauna, Keira and I were going to return to Mammoth Springs and go on another hike to a spectacular overlook where we would hold hands whilst reminiscing about all of the incredible things we had seen thus far. That was the plan.

After taking a wrong turn and having a near miss with a watermelon-sized boulder tumbling off of the mountain above the snow-covered road, it became evident our last day in Yellowstone was destined to be an adventure, whether we wanted it to be or not.

Keira and I spotted everything from elk to coyotes on our journey through the famed Lamar Valley, but still both bears and wolves eluded us. Feeling a bit disillusioned with animal spotting, we decided to go on a hike. It was snowing, but our yearning for physical activity convinced us to go on a quick, three-mile jaunt up to a pleasant meadow overlooking Lamar Valley. 

After dodging horse shit and speaking loudly about our future plans for a half an hour – apparently bears don’t like human conversation – we arrived at the snowy meadow. Unsatisfied, and aware of the existence of a second meadow a mile up the trail, we pressed onward until a large bison standing firmly in the middle of the trail abruptly halted our progress.

It’s important to note that bison are not uncommon in Yellowstone; in fact, if you have a working set of eyes its damn near impossible to visit and not see one. Having been desensitized to their presence, a bison standing 100 feet from us on a narrow trail with a flooded meadow on our right and a steep hill to our left did not immediately set off any sense of panic. It should have.

I have never seen an animal eliminate “flight” from the fight or flight response so quickly. Suddenly 100 feet seemed too close for comfort. Keira and I began to back up slowly as the bison began to walk forward slowly. We began to back up quicker, the bison picked up its pace, steadily closing the 100-foot gap. As this jockeying continued for a few more seconds, it was revealed to us that this bison was not alone but was just one of a herd of bison; a herd with newborn calves, calves they are very, very protective of. We break into a power walk, agro-bison decides to trot, and now we turn around, face downhill towards the car, and run.  

Our escape was successful, I assume because our puniness was made obvious to the bison and thus not worth his, or the herd’s, time. After dodging horse shit again and speaking loudly, out of nervousness instead of bear encounter prevention this time, we made it back to our orange chariot having survived our first truly sketchy encounter with Yellowstone mega-fauna.

We continued down the road to the eastern end of Lamar Valley and pulled off at an area called Pebble Creek. Keira and I tag-teamed cleaning out trash that had built up in the car, re-organized things and relieved our patient bladders. Ready to get back to Mammoth, go on another hike and setup camp for our last night in Yellowstone, we fired up the car and started driving. We got ten feet.

SCREEEEECH-WANGTANGTANG-SCREEEETCH, “Shit!”

It sounded as though the drive shaft sheared and was grinding against other important metal objects necessary for the operation of my car. My heart sank. All of our plans, the sights we would see, the experiences we would make, the hope of ever seeing those places and experiencing those things vanished with one wretched noise.

SCREEEEECH-WANGTANGTANG-SCREEEETCH, “Son-of-a!”

A man named Bill – the only other living soul around – pulled up in his ‘Merican made, diesel-power-plant-on-wheels and asked if we needed any help, adding at the end of his inquiry, “sounds like ‘ya ‘gotta pebble in ‘yer brake.” Taking note of that bizarre bit of op-info I asked where the nearest ranger station was. With simple directions received, Keira and I made our way three miles back towards Mammoth to a satellite ranger station in silence, aside from the ear-piercing screech of my car slowly dying – we presumed.

Ten minutes, and countless terrified creatures and their respective pissed-off human observers later, we arrived at the ranger station only to find out it is no longer a ranger station, but rather the springtime home of one very pregnant woman.

SCREEEEECH-WANGTANGTANG-SCREEEETCH, “Sounds like a pebble in your brake, I had that same problem once,” she says after bearing witness to the noise my car continued to make.

“So how do I fix it?” I ask.

“Well, you could risk driving on it and hope the pebble dislodges itself. Of course if it doesn’t fall out soon enough the friction caused by the pebble could heat up your brake and split it,” She continues, “Your other option is to take the tire off and see what’s back there.”

“I can’t do that,” I explain, “my tire lock was stolen.”

I stared at her, and she at I, silence fell over the three of us. “I’ll call a tow truck,” she said, conclusively.

Keira and I sat in the car, heat on high, audiobook blaring through the crippled car’s speaker system. Two hours later, the tow truck arrived from Cooke City, fifty miles away.    

“Sounds lika pebble in yer brake,” he said with half-confidence. “You try takin’ the tire off?”

“Don’t have the tire lock,” I say.

“Hmmm… well let’s lift up the front on the back-uh-my-truck here,” he suggests, lowering the hydraulic lift gate of his weathered truck.

Being the last resort before having to get towed fifty miles away in the snow, I agreed, drove my front tires onto the gate, helped him secure the car and lift the front end up. Crawling underneath I finally got a view of the problem area. Behind every brake pad there is a piece of low-gauge metal that protects the brake pads from dirt and grime. What I saw when I crawled underneath my car was that piece of metal warped and misshapen. I explained what I saw to the tow truck operator in a half question.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, reaching into his toolbox and pulling out a standard screwdriver. He kneeled, eye-level with the outside of my tire, and began poking on the small flange of metal barely visible from his vantage point, and worked the warped piece of metal back into its original shape. After only a few seconds of doing this, a pebble half the size of a pinky nail falls out, landing with a clink on the inside of my wheel.

“Fixed!” he proclaims.

He lowered the car back to the ground, I got in, put it in reverse, and sure enough, silence. $327 and a face-in-palm moment later, Cooke City Towing’s finest rumbled off in his battered tow truck, leaving Keira and I to stare at the innocuous looking pebble I held in my hand.

With a mixture of embarrassment, anger, and relief, we put the car (now dubbed Murphy) in drive and quietly rolled back onto the main road, due west.  Sick of snow, large animals and most of all, pebbles, we set a course for Portland, Oregon with the promise of good beer and a bed only fifteen hours away.


Next in Part II… Portland, Highway 1 and the Yosemite death march.