Road Trip! Back to Yellowstone and Grand Teton… Finally!

Yellowstone 2021: What can we learn from a pandemic?

It’s only a faint memory now, the daily news reports about something making people sick in a far away place. Early news reports told us it would ‘suddenly disappear,’ but other reports were more disturbing. I recall one of the doctors warning that ‘millions upon millions of people will die’ under a worst-case scenario.

It was late March, 2020, when my home state of Ohio first began warning of indefinite lockdown of non-essential businesses and public schools. During the early part of the lockdown I did what many people my age did – I rarely left the house. I also learned to cut my own hair, which I still do, and I’m improving with each weekly ‘trim.’ And, I didn’t have so much as a sniffle over the next year. So, it seemed in my world that it wasn’t all bad. The world news was horrific, though. I pray for all those families less fortunate than mine.

What must the wildlife be thinking? “Where is everyone?” I guessed.

I used my down time to learn new skills and hone some that needed honing. And, while I stayed busy working on my art, my mind drifted off to far away places. I wondered what a place like Yellowstone might look with no cars…no bison jams… no tour buses! What must the wildlife be thinking? “Where is everyone?” I guessed.

Grudgingly it seemed, the months slowly passed. My close friend and photography colleague, Eric Curby, and I were on the phone one day in April, 2021, when the subject of traveling once again was first mentioned. I had told him back in March that I was taking the bold step of a road trip to Colorado in between Covid-19 vaccination shots.

While parks were closed for the pandemic, wildlife took over. Now, they don’t want to give it back.

I had taken another bold step (for me) by staying in a hotel one night on each leg of the Colorado trip. “I pretty much had the entire floor to myself,” I told Eric, “so I think if we are both open to the idea of a Spring trip there won’t be many people traveling yet.”

After bouncing around a couple of ideas as to places we could go, Eric came up with the most brilliant idea. “What about this year we go someplace we know really well?”

“Yellowstone!” I think we both said it at the same time. And, it stuck.

What Lessons can Man Learn from the Beasts?

I remember the two-day, seventeen hundred mile drive from southwest Ohio to Island Park, Idaho, the site of our AirBnB. Compared with past experiences that drive seemed pretty mellow. On our first morning drive into West Yellowstone and the west entrance to the national park, we discussed how different it seemed, as though we had the entire place to ourselves. I believe the park service had four lanes open, with no more than three vehicles in any of the lanes, and moving quickly.

It was a little before 9 am and, after all, there were no international flights coming into the United States at that time due to pandemic restrictions, and K-12 schools were still in session here in the USA. I remember thinking it all made sense, most people are working and if they travel at all this year, most will delay traveling until their children are out of school.

“It makes a person think… For the here and now, we travel the roads of Yellowstone as permitted by the bison.”

Soon we exchanged greetings with a park ranger at the gate, showed my NPS Senior Pass, and proceeded through the gate with park map and newsletter in hand. The drive from the West Entrance to Madison Junction told us a lot about how the pandemic-induced absence of people had impacted the natural order of things, in Yellowstone at least. Bison and elk had discovered a preference for man-made roadways over taking traditional game trails, not simply as places to be crossed, but instead as primary routes of migration for entire herds. We saw hundreds of animals taking up both lanes of the two-lane road, a scene we witnessed day after day in a number of regions in both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks.

It makes a person think. I’m speaking of the sight of hundreds of 2,000-pound bison, shoulder-to-shoulder, tall as many SUV’s, moving at a serious gait, right at you. You, for what it’s worth, are helpless if not defenseless in your sheet metal and glass vehicle, sitting dead stopped in the midst of total chaos – hooves clicking, grunts gurgling, calves darting in and out of the crowd looking for the parents, it’s all dusty and smelly and a bit scary. It causes a person to contemplate his or her place in the order of things. For the here and now, we travel the roads of Yellowstone as permitted by the bison.

There have always been bison jams. This year, however, entire herds are taking to the roadways.

What lessons can be taken from what we are witnessing now? For one, we have learned that in the absence of man, the beast will move on just fine. For another, we are now learning that re-introduction of man into the ecosystem tends to upset the natural order that was set in place while man was away.

Let’s talk about the Experience: Seeing Yellowstone post-pandemic

There is also a lot about Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks that remains the same. The springtime is sensational. As expected, spring snowmelt had swelled rivers and streams. We stopped occasionally mid-span of a bridge over a roaring stream, shutting off the engine and putting windows down so we could witness the unreal roar reflecting off trees and canyon walls.

A sudden snow squall appears over ice-covered Yellowstone Lake, just as we are walking around West Thumb geyser basin.

Sudden springtime snow squalls are commonplace. We might be driving across the expanse between West Thumb and Lake Junction, enjoying a sixty-plus degree spring day, only to encounter a sudden temperature drop of twenty degrees or more, as storm clouds form over Yellowstone Lake to our right and sleet begins to pop against the windshield. Then turning north at Lake Junction, driving up through Hayden Valley, the weather deteriorates further and snow begins to build up on the roadway. Later, we reach the Canyon Junction and the weather has improved dramatically, as if nothing had happened.

I must say that my personal experience in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National parks in the spring of 2021 was unlike any spring I had experienced there, and I’ve been in both parks many, many times. It is not lost on me that the spring of 2021 happened at a time when circumstances in the world were quite unique. We arrived in Yellowstone on May 10th, a time when only half of the Grand Loop road system was open. Fewer than half of the facilities were open, almost none of the picnic areas or lesser known thermal areas were open – think Firehole Lake Drive, Artist Paint Pots, Grand Prismatic Overlook, etc.

But what we lacked in terms of access during out first week was more than covered by what we witnessed in the way of wildlife. By our second week there, roads began opening up and our access expanded rapidly. Weather was still a stinker, though. Just to give you an idea how crazy the weather got in late May, on our last full day it began to snow and sleet on us around 5:00 pm, just as we were heading back to our AirBnB in Island Park, Idaho, from Jackson Hole.

Our AirBnB hosts were very understanding when we reported that we were stranded. Here, Eric preps the car for the 1,700-mile trip back to Ohio. The date was May 22, 2021. Happy Spring!

By around 7:00 pm, we were within seven miles of our destination as we headed up a pass on Highway 20, just outside of West Yellowstone, Montana. The wipers were starting to load up with wet, sticky snow. Eric had to grab the driver-side wiper about every two or three minutes to ‘snap’ it to clear the buildup of snow. I’ll spare the reader all the nasty details… I’ll just say we didn’t make it home. but that’s a story for another day. It was a memorable trip, as they always are in Yellowstone and Grand Teton!

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