Grisly End (USA Day 75)
Our time in Yellowstone is up, and with it our extended stay in Wyoming. No doubt, it shoots to the top of our favourite states. The views! The smells! The beasts! The winds! Your move, Montana.
We woke in Canyon Campground to a misty, damp morning that sent no shivers of anticipation down our soggy spines. Today would be drudgery, hard work. The kind of day that links together the nice ones, that makes bicycle tours possible. In an effort to make something of it, we started in the wrong direction, cycling downhill to take a look at the eponymous Yellowstone Canyon. And our jaws fell off.
The scale is beyond comprehension. Far, far below, the rapid Yellowstone river bubbles away, ignorant of the gargantuan waterfall just ahead, from which a cloud of vapour obscures the plunge pool. Repeated tectonic activity keeps the enormous yellow-grey canyon in constant flux. The rhyolite causes patches of red. Thousands of minor earthquakes shape the stone, and countless geysers and steam vents burst from the walls. From three different viewpoints we saw three different canyons, and wondered what it would look like next time we came.
No matter how hard it was, we had to leave. The sky was weighty, the roads out of the park picturesque yet flattened by the clouds. After a week of camping (read: not really sleeping much) Amy’s exhaustion was catching up with her like mine had yesterday. It sits behind the eyes and at the pit of your stomach. It makes the legs turn slower, makes the saddle stiffer. But the regular downhills provided some easy riding, and by early afternoon we’d passed Madison Junction, our point of big decision, and proceeded west out of the park.
The least said about West Yellowstone the better. Not regulated by the US National Parks service, here is where all the privatised touristy stuff lives, so the streets bulged with bison-themed trinkets, hiking boots and authentic cowboy experiences. We found the most reasonably-priced grocery store and stocked up for the night, then headed north with the wind, then west right into the wind, along the edge of Hegben Lake, all moody and grey, with a bank of tumultuous black clouds clambering over the hills and heading right for us.
Reader, we soaked. The storm only lasted for twenty minutes, but that was long enough for our shoes to do little Hegben Lake tribute acts and our brakes to take on the honking noise they like to make when it’s wet.
This area is a National Forest, so free camping is always available. It’s also grizzly country, so you can’t just plop down a tent and spread honey on yourself like we’d normally do. Beaver Creek had dispersed camping: five marked sites along a four-mile gravel road with no facilities or water, and, we discovered, no metal bear boxes to hide your stuff in. Suddenly concerned we’d swum too far out of our depth, our plan was to camp on the edge a friendly camper’s plot, so that if a big brown boy came about, we could hide in their car.
The first site we came across contained a man in a camo jacket trundling about beside his enormous RV.
“Hi!” I hollered, as English as possible. “We wondered if we could just pitch up here, you know, for safety in numbers. Would that be alright?”
“No,” he said, abruptly.
“As in, no?”
“We have guns. We like our privacy. Find your own spot.”
Still not sure if the mention of guns was a threat to us or an affirmation that they didn’t need numbers to feel safe. Jilted, we moved on to the second site, where music and a woman’s voice tumbled out of an open window.
“Hello?” I called.
Judging by how loudly she was speaking to her dog and how close we were, she could most definitely hear us.
I tried again. “Hi there!”
She didn’t emerge from the caravan. Onto spot three, a good mile further down this increasingly bear-infested backroad. Did you know that there are more grizzly bears in this hilly corridor of Montana than Yellowstone and Teton combined? We did, and so did every brown shape in the darkening forest.
The third site had a pickup, a coolbox, a fishing chair and a decent looking tent. When we called out, a misshapen man in greasy overalls and tangled beard loped out of the driver’s seat.
This time, Amy asked him if we could camp on the edge of his spot.
“Y’all have bear spray?” His sing-song voice was far too sweet for his appearance. Judging by his swaying, he was clearly drunk.
“Yep,” she said, the both of us now regretting approaching site three. “We’re well protected. Have you seen bears?”
“Not in a week. Maybe it’s the rain. You can camp up there, behind the long grass to give us some privacy.”
We weren’t sure who ‘us’ was, but later we heard him talking to somebody. His name was Greg, from Arizona. I asked if he was heading for Yellowstone, which he confirmed way too quickly without elaboration. Uneasily, we set up on the sodden path behind the grass, batting away mosquitos, kicking off slugs, trying to make enough noise to scare a bear but not enough to disturb a Greg.
Dinner was salami and sloppy coleslaw on bread, eaten standing up in big gulps, every drip followed by a curse and a rub of the gravel to hide the smell. We gobbled some crisps which flaked off in crumbs and yoghurts which flicked onto our coats. May as well leave the bears an actual trail of breadcrumbs. Once we were done, the food went in the bearproof cannister and slipped behind a sapling. The toiletries went in a tightly-wrapped pannier and we roped them halfway up a tree. We slipped into our tent and lay quite still, wondering what on earth we’d done and which of the bears, men or other assorted threats would kill us first.