A while ago a question burrowed into my brain and refused to leave: What would it be like to photograph Yellowstone National Park for an entire year?
Slowly a plan began to take shape. To truly capture Yellowstone I’d need to live as close to the park as possible. The only entrance open all year is on the north side, by Mammoth Hot Springs, which makes the adjacent small town of Gardiner, Montana the perfect place to rent an apartment. But housing in Gardiner is extremely limited – apparently there are long waiting lists for vacancies.
The next closest town is Livingston, Montana, about 50 miles north of Gardiner. Livingston has affordable apartments, it seems like a nice place, and it’s only an hour’s drive from the park. It would make a pretty solid home base.
But I couldn’t decide if the whole thing was even a good idea. Wouldn’t I miss being home with Marie? Could I stay interested in the park for an entire year? Why would someone who hates cold weather want to scrape ice off his car on frozen pitch-black winter mornings? What would I do when I’m not out taking photos?
Maybe I needed a test run. If I spent a week in Livingston when it’s starting to get cold, I thought, it would give me a better sense of whether I’d want to live there for an entire year. So on a Sunday morning in early October I left Marie’s place in Mountain View and made the two-day drive to Montana.
My week in Livingston passed quickly. Most days I drove to Yellowstone before sunrise, spent the morning looking for animals, ate lunch in the park, and returned to my hotel in the mid-afternoon. Scraping ice off my car in the pre-dawn dark was not quite as miserable as I expected, and the hour-long commute to the park felt manageable.
I had good luck with wildlife. While driving through a relatively empty area of the park (thanks to access-limiting road construction), the corner of my eye caught dark shapes moving through the sagebrush. Grizzlies – a mom with two large cubs – heading right towards me! The three bears trotted up to the road, eyed me warily, and then crossed no more than 20 feet from my car. Hands down the highlight of my time in the park. It’s always a rush to see such incredible animals, and even better when it happens away from the stifling Yellowstone crowds.
My niece Kate is a junior at Montana State University in Bozeman, only a half hour away from Livingston, and I met her one night for dinner. It was a good reminder that having Kate nearby is another reason it would be fun to live in Montana.
And yet at the end of the week I remained torn. I liked Livingston and I managed to find a decent apartment to rent. But a year is a long time. And Montana winters are very, very cold. Ultimately, though, all the pieces are in place, and the only way to get the stubborn question out of my brain is to quit waffling and make a move.