There’s something eerie about driving through someplace empty that you know is designed to be busy: a parking lot, for instance, or a national park whose photos of congested traffic are legendary.
That’s what we encountered at Yellowstone. We arrived during the last days of its 2016 season. The ranger at the west entrance gave us a skeptical eye when we paid our admission fee, as if to say, “You do know there’s nothing here, don’t you?” but we plunged ahead anyway.
Most people time their visits to Yellowstone to coincide with the likelihood of encountering bison or elk or the other fauna that claim the park as their home. Others time it to enjoy the thrill of snowmobiling to Old Faithful or to the mountains. We timed ours to coincide with nothing. Absolutely nothing.
But we were traveling west to east on a cramped schedule, with a deadline to reach (and here I shall pause, as those of you who read whostolemybrain.com will remember…) <<CAUTION: USELESS ETYMOLOGY LESSON AHEAD!>> ”Deadline” is a word with an interesting back story. It used to be taken literally: it was an imaginary line in a prison yard, and if any convict stepped over it, he risked getting shot. Dead. He had crossed the dead line.<<END USELESS ETYMOLOGY LESSON>> because my partner had a new job waiting for her in Vermont.
We’d conquered our impulse to stop in every Thomaston, Dickinson, and Harrisburg, by limiting each of us to one requested stop each. Yellowstone was a family decision, so we actually had four planned stops. This was the first.
We had the luxury of being essentially the only car on the road. Park roads that were notoriously jammed during the tourist seasons were now empty. Signs warning about traffic issues seemed ridiculous alongside empty roads snaking through this subdued autumn paradise.
Also empty, however, were our camera lenses. We were eager for the famous fauna to come and fawn around us. Unlike the summer drivers who have to ward off the bison, we had to hunt for them.
The day was subdued because parts of the park were near freezing. The dew was caught in place over half the meadow, the half still draped in shade. The air was silent, and the colors the quiet tones fitting a place that has been set to settle for a while, shades of red and purple but dusted, muted.
“Bison!” our son shouted—and sure enough, there was one. <<CAUTION: USELESS ETYMOLOGY LESSON AHEAD!>> Odd to have two lessons in one blog, but this one is significant: there are no buffalo in the United States. There are only bison, which reminded early settlers of the buffalo found in Asia and Africa. And so, incongruously, the “buffalo” roam, where the deer and the antelope play. <caution: useless additional note ahead> there are no antelope in the U.S. either; the “antelopes” just look like antelopes.<end useless additional note><<END USELESS ETYMOLOGY LESSON>>
We oohed and aahed and snapped pictures. Our first bison! (We stayed the requisite distance away.) Our wildlife adventure was beginning!
We soon realized that we weren’t in for a wildlife adventure after all, unless we wanted to hike “inland” on one of the trails, something for which we were not equipped. So no wildlife, except for a stray bison—or elk! Look! Elk! Yes, we saw a few elk too, but no bears, no wolverines, no big horn sheep, no mule deer, nothing slithering or croaking or raptor-ing.
But there was Old Faithful! More on that next time.