Weird stuff happens in Yellowstone National Park.
Unfortunately, unless you know a park ranger or someone happens to photograph or video the unusual happening and post it online, we have very little idea of just how much weird stuff occurs. It's certainly not something the park staff wants to talk about.
A tour into Yellowstone National Park on Saturday to photograph the fall colors and with the hope of seeing some wildlife and hearing bull elk bugle presented a couple of odd moments for my wife and me that I will share with you. They may not rise to YouTube notoriety like the child being chased by a bison, but they still provide a glimpse into the oddities that occur in Yellowstone.
The most unusual incidents we witnessed occurred within only minutes of each other while driving along a short stretch of the road between Cooke City and Tower Junction.
The first oddity was a man rolled up in a blue plastic tarp alongside the road near the Lamar River's canyon section. He appeared to be sleeping on the ground, even though he was only a car's width from the road.
While discussing whether he could be ticketed for illegal napping – since you can only camp in designated sites -- we came to the Slough Creek Road turnoff and saw a man climbing to the top of the stone outhouse in the parking area.
At first, he was perched on his haunches on the wall that acts as a shield to the door. I thought maybe he was going to leap onto the outhouse's occupant when they exited, thereby scaring the crap out of them when it was safe to do so. But then he climbed stealthily atop the roof, glancing briefly toward the roadway as if to make sure we weren't park rangers. With that step, I had to assume he was looking for a better view of the surrounding landscape. That seemed odd, since he could have just walked up the hill behind the parking area to get the same view, albeit with many more steps.
As we rounded that corner and descended to the new bridge that's being built across the Lamar River, I swear we saw Santa Claus driving toward us in a bright red auto.
Sure, the fall colors were for the most part fantastic. The aspen were varied from green to yellow to orange in bursts of vibrant colors highlighted by the diffused light. The sky varied from brilliant blue to threateningly dark rain clouds. The golden color of the grasses made the expansive Lamar Valley seem like something out of the African savannah.
But like many trips, it was the unusual side occurrences that made for the most unique and humorous memories.
Yellowstone is no longer a quiet place in the fall. On Saturday, cars crowded Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyo. – the park's headquarters – as if it were a summer day. People milled along the thermal feature walkways and crowded the grassy areas to watch grazing elk. A Speedo-clad swimmer strolled along the path from the nearby Boiling River as the temperature hovered around 72 degrees.
RVs crowded one park outside of Gardiner, lined up like an orderly child's white toys along the edge of a steep hill overlooking the Yellowstone River. Vehicle license plates were from as far away as Alabama and as near as Stillwater County.
My wife and I estimated there must have been a minimum of 20 different nationalities represented that we alone came in contact with, many of them young families with children. It's easy to forget that the park is such an international drawing card, even in the shoulder season of autumn. But there's some proof in the visitation numbers. Last year, more than 536,000 people toured the park in September, the fourth busiest month. (Statistics weren't available for this September yet.) That dropped considerably to 175,000 people by October. But consider that only a decade earlier, in 2001, September visitation was about 163,000 fewer people. That seems like a pretty good jump in a decade.
Here's what else we saw that was unusual, but which can't rival our minute of weirdness on the highway.
As cars slowed to pass next to a hulking bull bison as it wandered westward, one pick-up truck apparently got inside the bison's comfort zone. The bull made a hooking motion with his head, as if to gore the pickup, which narrowly scooted out of the way. Every car after that gave the bull a wide berth.
We saw our first bighorn sheep jam as we exited the park toward Gardiner. I've known that the high cliffs along the roadway where it pinches close to the Gardner River are bighorn habitat, but I've never seen one there. On Saturday, though, the sheep were right in the middle of the road, as well as on both sides. We didn't see any bruiser ram with heavy horns, but the deft-footed animals still attracted plenty of attention from the camera-toting tourists.
The unusual activities and odd occurrences were a reminder to drop the curtain that often shields the limited vision we employ in our daily urban lives. It also begs the question: What was Santa Claus doing in Yellowstone?