Monday afternoon we arrived at Yellowstone and immediately noticed that this, like the Grand Canyon, was a national park in a whole different league as a tourist attraction. Mammoth Springs, the point where we entered, is a bona fide town, with streets and many buildings. But there are definitely some hints you’re in a park, like the huge elk just sitting outside the post office.
While in Mammoth Springs, we decided to check out the Terraces, this neat place where the magma beneath the earth is very close to the surface. It heats the water that seeps down and sends it bubbling up with dissolved calcium carbonate from the limestone, creating ever-new deposits! So the surface of the terraces is always changing, and they’re colored by these thermophile bacteria of different shades who like different water temperatures. We walked around on the boardwalks above the lower terraces, then decided to drive the loop around the upper terraces. Shortly after turning onto the loop, we found ourselves sitting in a many-car backup. We were criticizing the people who stop to take pictures without pulling over out of the way when we rounded the corner and saw a bear! A grizzly bear! It was up on the hill a little ways away, and lots of people had stopped to take pictures. We had heard enough about dumb tourists who get too close to wildlife to be wary, but we figured that if we stood at a safe distance, the bear would get to other people first. As we watched, it came loping down the hill, posing above a car (see picture) and scattering the onlookers. But it wasn’t incensed…just went on eating and eventually we moved on. As we finished the loop, we hit a big pothole and heard a shattering sound, so we pulled into the nearby parking lot.
On the highway driving to the park, a piece of something hard and clear had hit our windshield. Bill had wondered aloud if it was a piece of ice and Erin had pointed out that it seemed unlikely that a piece of ice would just fall from the blue sky. It turned out that a rock had hit our front driver-side headlight casing, sending a piece of the clear plastic flying. Now the impact from the pothole had widened the hole. But the headlight casing was a special Volvo part and the nearest dealership for 3 states was in Billings, MT, so there wasn’t much we could do except clean out some of the glass. We continued on towards our campsite, passing something Erin thought was another bear (would have been the biggest bear ever, but turned out to be a log), taking some photos of a wolf, and checking out the Porcelain Geyser Basin along the way.
Porcelain Geyser Basin:
As we set up the tent and began making dinner preparations, thunder and lightening crackled overhead. When the rain started, we packed all our dinner things back into the car and sat there and hoped the tent — fully set up with the fly, but not yet tested by rain — would hold up. The lightening got pretty close, and then at one point it started to hail. When the hail and the thunder stopped and the rain lightened, we went back to cooking. We’d cooked the vegetables and were working on getting the pasta water boiling when the thunder and rain started back up and we simultaneously ran out of propane. So we got back into the car and ate vegetables and tofu as we waited out the storm again. We wound up going to bed quite late, but the tent had stayed reasonably dry!
On our way out in the morning, we passes a buffalo on the road. They look so cool! We stopped at the “Artist’s Paintpots”, another place with lots of colorful, bubbling ground. Driving south by a river canyon, we were planning to get to a trailhead and do a 5 mile hike to Fairy Falls, but the sky darkened and it started to rain again. So we decided to take another driving loop by a bunch of cool geysers. As we parked the car and got out to see Firehole Lake, Erin and Bill heard a hissing sound and watched our front driver-side tire slowly deflate. All things being equal, getting a flat when you’re safely parked and out of the car is probably the best possible situation. Bill pulled the spare and the jack out of the trunk, but the last shop to have the car had tightened the bolts so much that when he went tried to exert enough force to loosen them, he pulled the car off the jack.
I have AAA, but of course there was no phone service. So we flagged down a few other cars until we found one heading towards Old Faithful, where we knew there was a park-operated auto shop. I caught a ride while Bill & Erin stayed with the car. The folks driving me were a school teacher from Las Vegas and a man from Australia. They’re really cute — they struck up a friendship when he visited her friend in college, and somehow figured out that they enjoy traveling together. So they’re not a couple, but every year or so they meet up somewhere – Europe, the US, elsewhere – and go on a trip. They dropped me off at the car shop, where I met Mike the Mechanic (alliterative, like Bob the Builder). We hopped in Mike’s truck and headed back up the road, chatting all the way. Mike has a pretty great set-up for half the year, when he manages the shop at Yellowstone. He lives in the park and goes hiking out into the wilderness in his free time – away from the crowds! – to fish. The employees have a little area at Old Faithful that’s fenced off, with their own pub (with cheaper beer) and a campfire they sit around most nights. Plus he gets to meet people from all over the world through his job, and the scenery is gorgeous. Unfortunately the job is seasonal, but it sounds like he’s a good enough mechanic that he finds work the other half the year wherever he wants to be. He’s gone home to Buffalo, NY the past few years, but this winter he’s thinking about Florida.
Mike got our spare on and we followed him back to the shop. Unfortunately the tire showed a really weird wear pattern, totally threadbare on the inside and fine on the outside, so it wasn’t a puncture we could just patch. And it turned out that Mike’s shop didn’t have our tire size. To make matters worse, as Bill closed the car door, the driver-side side mirror glass fell to the ground and broke into two pieces. At this point we just started laughing — our car was falling apart all at once! And all in the same corner! Mike offered to glue the mirror, but said it wouldn’t set for a while, since the rain was still pouring down (apparently this amount of rain is very unusual this time of year). So we decided to wait until later. Mike called over to a shop 35 miles away, just outside the park, where they said they had our tires, so we headed to West Yellowstone.
Broken headlight, spare tire, pieces of mirror on the ground:
Once we made it there, however, it turned out that there had been a miscommunication and the shop didn’t have our size after all. They tried to sell us tires the next size down, but we eschewed that option and called over to yet another place, on the other side of the park, where they had plenty. We determined we could make it there in the morning on our spare.
Before leaving town, we swung by the hardware store. While our headlight hadn’t originally been broken, it had burned out after being exposed to all the moisture. And we weren’t getting a new casing anytime soon. So we bought some packing tape — after consulting with the man in the hardware store, who waved us off the expensive fiberglass duct tape — and made a cover for the headlight, then replaced the bulb. As we were working, about 5 different Montanan men walked through the parking lot and offered widely varying advice. One suggested supergluing the remaining glass pieces together. Another said he thought the tape would hold, while another shook his head and said the bulb would burn right through it. Another suggested we get the shop to cut us a piece of plexiglass and tape that in. Another, after giving us his advice, pointed to his own busted headlights to prove his expertise. They were nearly all wearing big boots and broad hats, and the whole experience was pretty funny, though we wished we’d gotten the same advice twice. We finished the taping and bought a $1.88 piece of plexiglass as insurance, in case we had to do it again. Then we drove back into the park.
Given how much we were driving on our spare, we should probably have headed for camp. But while the car and the rain had robbed us of our hike, we weren’t going to leave Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful blow. So we drove back that way, walked the loop of geysers nearby, then sat with about a billion other people waiting for Old Faithful’s predicted spouting. When it finally did go off, it was pretty neat! Lived up to the hype. After seeing that, we drove back to camp and made a rice curry dinner, then tried to go to bed quickly. We planned to be up very early and headed to the tire shop, which opened at 7am 100 miles away.
Heart geyser. See it?
It turns out that the advantage of getting up at 4:30 and being on the long road out of Yellowstone at 5:30am is that a) no one else is on the road and b) all the animals are up and about. On our early morning drive, we passed grazing buffalo, osprey and storks, elk, several types of deer, and a number of other creatures. Plus, the sun rising over the misty Yellowstone Lake made for some fantastic views. So we didn’t find ourselves regretting the early wake-up. We listened to Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel on the ride — loud enough to keep Bill awake driving, soft enough to let Erin sleep in the back — and made it to Rimrock Tires in Cody, WY at about 7:30. They had our tires. The right front one, though not flat, had the same weird wear pattern, so we replaced both front tires. The guys at Rimrock, like Mike, thought it looked like we had a front-end alignment problem, but they couldn’t fit us into their alignment schedule until 2pm. And we couldn’t hang out in Cody, WY until then and still make it to South Dakota by nightfall. So I stared at a map, hopped on Google — thanks, Dad, for the loan of the 3G-enabled iPad! — and called 12 different auto shops across Wyoming. Learned a lot about the layout of Wyoming in the process. Some of the shops didn’t do alignments and some were full all day. But eventually I found one 150 miles away that could see us at 2pm near the Wyoming-South Dakota border. So we drove east on our new tires. We stopped at an auto store to pick up a few more headlight bulbs, though the one we’d put behind the tape was still going strong. In the shop, they sold replacement side mirrors (ours was still gone). They didn’t have one for our model, but we saw that the replacements were just attached with cushion tape, so we bought some of that and taped the two pieces of the broken mirror back to the plate. A thousand miles later, it’s still working. The wonders of modern tape!
Taping the mirror:
The unexpected highlight of the day was definitely driving over the Bighorn Mountains through the Bighorn National Forest. The road took us up to nearly 10,000 feet, where we had amazing views down onto the plain below. And despite being so high up, it was incredibly green! We also learned from a sign that we were near the Medicine Wheel, a giant set of ancient cairns used by Native Americans. It forms a 28-spoke wheel when viewed from above and lines up with the solstice etc. Basically the American Stonehenge, except much less well known and made from smaller rocks. We went up to see it, but a park ranger informed us that several big snow drifts blocked the 1.5 mile walk to the wheel. We didn’t have our boots out, and our 2pm appointment loomed, so we decided the wheel would have to wait until our next time in Wyoming. But the ride down continued to be beautiful, and we drove by some mountain rock dating to the Devonian age.
Plain stretches out below:
Ranger station at the Medicine Wheel:
So green, 10,000 feet up:
We made it to Sheridan, WY early, had lunch, then got our alignment fixed. It took nearly 2 hours, but they told us exactly what we wanted to hear: our front end alignment was totally out of whack. We’d much rather have that be the explanation for the tire problem than ‘oh, some obscure and very expensive part is broken.’ Cheerful that we had solved all our problems (or at least temporarily fixed them with tape) and kept to our schedule, we drove across the border into South Dakota and headed for our campsite in the Black Hills.