As I dreamed about and then planned this trip, I had any number of people ask “are you going to be able to handle those two by yourself for all that time” with the same disbelieving tone they might use while asking “Are you sure bison-tipping is a good idea?” I had every confidence in the world that I could—my boys are good travelers, and our agenda was loose enough as to be functionally non-existent if need be. At least that’s what I hoped.
And they have been good travelers, mind-blowingly good travelers, even better than I expected. I’ll give you a for-instance: this morning I dragged them from their sleeping bags to go wolf watching in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, revisiting the central point of wildlife watching etiquette as we drove—no loud noises of any kind (you even close your car door witha gentle shove of the hip). The hard-core wolf-watching regulars with their spotting scopes and two-way radios are unfailingly warm and friendly with the casual tourists, but then again I wanted to be accepted by the inner circle (or should I say “pack”), and most parents with six and four-year olds don’t hang around for two hours at a stretch.
Anyway, they did me proud and then some, hanging around in the car and entertaining themselves for long periods when there was no action and getting out quietly and eagerly when I knocked gently on the window. And then when Will stepped down from a wolf-watcher’s spotting scope, took out pen and paper and began earnestly drawing what he had seen without any prompting whatsoever, I thought my heart would just explode. (More on wolf watching—our Sunday morning church service—later in this post.) Needless to say, the pack approved.
As good as they have been, as regularly as my heart has wanted to explode with gratitude and pride, this has still been tough going for a lone parent. Someone always has to go to the bathroom or needs to be buckled in or wants something to drink or needs his pancake cut or simply wants a response to a “Dad?” call before asking another question. I have to laugh at myself for packing my usual traveling library of field guides and tree-hugging literature; I think I’ve read one chapter of Scott Russell Sanders and opened my bird field guide once. I’m surprised I’ve done as well as I have with taking pictures; every time the camera comes out they start asking to take turns, no longer satisfied with having little disposables of their own. Will and I have had some earnest discussions about the meaning of the word “pester.”
A very typical Andrew pose. “Daaad, I caan’t hold it!”
I told Belinda on the phone the other day that I was wrong when thought I’d be the one who most wanted to camp. I figured the boys would push me to stay in hotels more often. In fact, it’s been just the opposite—the boys love camping, are disappointed every time we head for town. And why not? Each campsite is a big playground for them.
The main attraction at Pebble Creek campground, our home in Yellowstone for three days. Why am I not in this picture? Well, I guess because I’m taking it, but in other circumstances it’d be because I’m too damn busy.
It’s just so much bloody work–unpacking the car, pitching the tent, inflating the mattresses, assembling the stove, cooking the food, cutting the food, washing the dishes, picking up and disposing bear-attracting scraps and so forth and so on. All while “Daaad” rings out every three minutes.
And so there’s no way we could function without my giving them more and more responsibility and freedom. That’s why the words “Will, take your brother to the bathroom” are the most beautiful in the English language. Followed closely by “Andrew, ask your brother to help you.” Or “You boys stay right here for two minutes and don’t move while I [go to the bathroom, run across the street to the ATM, whatever].”
And I have to say something about their ability to entertain themselves. Right now I’m sitting in a restaurant in West Yellowstone, and Andrew is playing some sort of game with two pieces of silverware (in lieu of talking to Mommy on the telephone). They’ve made up games using colored pencils, hotel room keys, sticks, rocks, empty water bottles—you name it. Just before leaving home two weeks ago I decided not to let them pick out a couple of toys to take with them, and I’m frankly glad I did. And this experience just reinforces my absolute refusal to ever buy a car with an onboard DVD system.
So what have we been up to?
Even the tortoise arrives at his destination eventually.
We entered the park on July 4th by the Northeast Entrance and made camp at Pebble Creek, a rather small and remote site, nothing like the industrial campgrounds at Canyon and Madison. We drove up and down Lamar Valley and made a quick visit to the crowds at Tower Falls, but mostly we hung around camp and explored its immediate area before going back up the road to Cooke City for fireworks in the evening. The fireworks were okay, about what you’d expect in a town of 140, but the way the big blasts echoed off the surrounding mountains for a full seven seconds was pretty impressive. For his part, Andrew spent the whole time with his hands clamped firmly over his ears and asking to get back in the car . . . until they were over and he started talking about how great they were.
On Saturday, we drove toward Canyon, visited the super-cool new Visitor Center, checked out Upper Falls (but had to leave quickly because Andrew had to pee), had lunch by the Yellowstone River in Hayden Valley, and walked around the Mud Volcano thermal group. Will and I are both big fans of the feature called Churning Cauldron. Andrew isn’t real sure about the “stinky steam.”
Maybe we can catch a fish for lunch!
Will, I don’t want to go in the stinky steam!
But the big highlights for the day were the bears. We saw four black bears, including a mother and cub, and three grizzlies, including one which we watched for a good thirty minutes from a distance of probably only 40 yards, a truly magical and bizarre experience, the bear being safely atop a thirty-foot roadcut cliff and being ogled by hundreds of tourists below.
No I don’t (yet) own a really big telephoto lens (I top out at 150mm). He (she?) was really that close
The bear kept digging and eating, digging and eating. Occasionally a rock would cut loose and roll down the slope, dropping off the roadcut and narrowly missing a tourist car parked below.
And then yesterday we had our wolf morning. In the past, I have spent a lot of Westminster’s money, contracting with the Yellowstone Institute for their guides to take my courses wolf watching. I’ve stood and shivered through a number of early mornings, waiting to see what might turn up in what were considered “sure-fire” locations. And I had seen nothing. So I debated trying again with the boys, but I’m thankful that I did. Most of the pack stayed back in the trees, but we heard them howling a couple of times, and then one adult made a circuit all the way around our position, popping in and out of view for a half hour or so. As wolf sightings go, I guess it was pretty ho-hum, if there is such a thing (yesterday in another part of the Park we just missed seeing one take an elk calf), but it totally made our morning.
We spent the afternoon hiking to Trout Lake, where the big attraction was watching the spawning Cutthroat Trout swim up the inlet stream.
Hiking through a garden of wildflowers . . .
. . . to a beautiful little lake.
They don’t really show in this picture, but there are at least a dozen big cutthroat in this riffle in front of Andrew. He squeals with delight every time they give him a good splash.
Okay, that’s our progress so far. If there are any typos, I’ll have to fix them later . . . our laundry is done and the boys are hungry. This evening, we’re off to Old Faithful.