I know I’m not the only one who’s been going a little stir crazy.
For almost three months I’ve basically confined myself to Marie’s place unless I’m walking Thunder, going for a run, or buying groceries. All quarantine and no travel makes Rob a dull boy.
So it was with a particularly keen interest that I kept my eye on Yellowstone National Park’s plans for re-opening. The Wyoming entrances started letting in visitors on May 18th, followed two weeks later by the Montana entrances. A week after that, well before dawn on a Sunday morning, I hopped in my car and headed east.
Fourteen hours later I crept carefully over Teton Pass in the midst of a summer snowstorm before finally rolling into Jackson, Wyoming, relieved to have made the long drive in one piece. Early the next morning I drove to the Snake River Overlook for what has become my standard sunrise photo opportunity in Grand Teton National Park.
My top photography goal for this trip was to get a good shot of bear 399, sometimes described as the most famous wild grizzly in the world. For 24 years she’s been delighting visitors at Grand Teton National Park, and this year she appeared with not one, not two, not three, but four newborn cubs. I’d seen some of the amazing photos people were getting of the new family and very much wanted a few of my own.
Luck was not on my side, however, and 399 was nowhere to be found that morning. I continued on to Yellowstone, excited to be back in the park. That afternoon I watched two cinnamon-colored black bear cubs scamper up a tree as their mom waited patiently below.
For the next four nights I stayed in Gardiner, Montana, just outside Yellowstone’s northern entrance. I started most mornings in Hayden Valley, where the Wapiti wolf pack had been making regular appearances at sunrise, and I managed to find them twice. At one point I watched as a young black Wapiti wolf on the other side of the Yellowstone river decided to swim over to my side, sprint through a marshy field, and then dart across the road between groups of thrilled photographers.
Another morning I spotted several of the Wapiti wolves, including the white Alpha female I photographed back in November 2018, practically glowing in the first sunlight of the day as they trotted in single file along a ridgeline.
Black bears seemed to be everywhere, and I was able to photograph a moose, baby bison, pronghorn antelopes, and a surprisingly cooperative fox. As I was watching the fox I noticed a couple of other photographers moving excitedly towards what turned out to be a badger, only the second one I’d ever encountered in the park. The badger scampered off before I could get a shot, but it was fun to see.
On Saturday I drove back down to Grand Teton National Park to continue searching for 399. She eluded me again, but I did catch a glimpse of two of her grandkids – too far away, unfortunately, for photos. On Sunday morning I made my last attempt to find 399 and failed yet again. Apparently she and her cubs had been seen on Wednesday, and they appeared again a few days later, but for me it wasn’t meant to be. I’ll have to try again another time.
I did, however, run across a beaver swimming near the shore of Jackson Lake. I’d never seen a beaver in the wild before, so it was especially fun to get my first sighting and shot.
From Yellowstone I drove to Zion National Park, the final stop of my trip. Zion opened several weeks before Yellowstone, but services in the park were still limited. The shuttle that normally runs through the main valley wasn’t operating, so the park was allowing people to drive in with their own cars. The catch was the extremely limited parking. “How soon do I need to be here to definitely get in tomorrow morning?” I asked a park ranger when I arrived on Saturday evening.
“The gate doesn’t open until 6am, but cars started lining up at 2am this morning,” he said.
Yikes! I thought if I was one of the first people in the valley I might be able to have The Narrows to myself. But 2am seemed a little extreme. The Narrows is probably my favorite day hike in the entire continental U.S., but during the summer it also attracts some of Zion’s biggest crowds. Having the vertical sandstone walls of The Narrows to yourself is a jaw-dropping, deeply moving experience, but sharing it with the masses can be maddening.
I decided to compromise. I set my alarm for 3:45am and drove into the park a little after 4am. There were already more than 60 cars in line ahead of me. Thankfully not all of them were headed to The Narrows, and most of those who were needed some time to prepare before heading out. As soon as I reached the parking lot at the Temple of Sinawava I bolted onto the trail that leads to The Narrows and quickly passed the only people in front of me. I was the first one to reach the point where the Virgin River itself becomes the trail, and for almost the entire hike upriver I was joyfully alone.
Eventually a British couple caught up to me while I was taking photos, but by then I’d almost reached the spot where I usually turn around anyway. I feel extraordinarily grateful every time I have a special place like The Narrows all to myself. It’s truly a unique experience, and one I really needed after so many weeks of sitting at home.
From The Narrows I drove over to the other part of the park to check in on my favorite tree, which I first noticed back in 2005 and have visited regularly ever since. It hadn’t changed a bit since I saw it last.
The next morning I started early once again and made the drive back to Mountain View in 11 hours. Worn out and feeling much less stir crazy, I was just as happy to return home as I’d been to hit the road the week before.
I wondered, both before I left and after I returned, if it was irresponsible to take a long road trip in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. Maybe so. But I did try to minimize my risk of catching or spreading the virus. The vast majority of the time I was alone in my car, outside taking photos, or alone in my hotel room. Every meal I ate was take-out. I practiced social distancing, and I wore a mask whenever I was inside with other people for an extended period of time.
And yet in Nevada, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah – other than some precautions taken by hotels and the restrictions at the parks – there weren’t many signs that we’re still grappling with a pandemic. The roads were bustling with traffic, and stores were crowded with mostly mask-free customers. It boggles my mind that something as simple (and apparently effective) as wearing a mask has become entangled with politics, and that a substantial percentage of people seem to view it as weak, pointless, or unpatriotic.
Although I suppose the resistance to wearing masks is just one of many rabbit holes that seem so visible lately, tunnels that lead down to some kind of overdue reckoning with the ugliest facets of our country. I haven’t been naive enough to completely miss the existence of an underbelly of racism, anger, and resentment, but I dramatically underestimated its scope and scale until the election of our current President helped flip over that rock.
Like many of us, I expect, I’m still struggling to figure out how to play a part – however small – in making things better (beyond voting, of course). Going on long solo road trips to photograph wildlife and surround myself with the incomparable beauty of the natural world may be critical to my mental health, but in the face of current events it often feels like a self-indulgent escape.