Bears and Buffalos

Bears, they’re gonna get me! I have to keep making noise. “Hey bear!” I occasionally called out as a warning. I had learned you never want to surprise a bear. As I hiked up this mountain I intentionally made loud obnoxious steps, kicking the rocks beneath my feet when I had the opportunity. I was hiking solo up Mount Washburn in Yellowstone National Park, along a wide open gravel trail. 

It’s all quite ridiculous in retrospect, but this was my first substantial hike alone in grizzly bear country. I had no way to gage the threat of a bear attack other than by all the worrisome warnings from the National Park Service through all the trailhead signs and in the park newspaper. Also, just days prior in Grand Teton National Park, bear spray was selling like it was the latest craze. I thought I would buy bear spray, but when I found out it was $50, I guess my thrifty self decided my life wasn’t worth that much. But there also was a bit of doubt that bears were a viable threat to my safety. I once thought rattlesnakes would be much more of a problem in the Southwest than what they are, and then there were the mountain lions. I never had any trouble with these animals. Maybe bears were just one more to add to the list. And bear spray? Really? It sounded like quite a gimmick to me. Fear is a great way to make a buck. I wouldn’t put it past the greedy and sly to overhype the threat of bears and scare people into buying bear spray. Then again I’m prone to entertain conspiracy theories as distrust seems to be my default in what’s new. If bears were a really serious and substantial threat I was thinking the park service would provide bear spray with the price of admission into the park or require people to purchase it. 

Now, don’t take advice from me about your approach to such a situation. This was my very first solo hike in bear country, but in subsequent years, especially during my stays in Montana, I’d hike many times solo in bear country. Have I had bear encounters? Yes, quite a few. Have they ended ugly? No. Most bears just seem to loaf around without a care, but I’ve heard stories. I’ve met people who have been attacked. It’s real, but to what degree is this threat? I still have a hard time gaging it. I now do carry bear spray with me when I’m out hiking in Montana, but after dozens of hikes, I’ve never had to deploy it. 

But here in Yellowstone I was a newby, and although I convinced myself not to buy bear spray by holding onto my conspiracy theory and my $50, I still was cautious, and I became a bit paranoid on my way up Mount Washburn, thinking that the bears could be just about anywhere and were ripe and ready for attack at any moment. In retrospect, I don’t think this particular mountainscape in Yellowstone was prime bear habitat, but at the time, what did I know? I’ve told myself quite a few times when I’m out hiking and taking certain precautions, “better safe than dead.” I use that phrase to justify taking the extra safety measures I sometimes take, but I certainly don’t live by it always. Way too many people are held back by fear, and in being so, they miss out on the richness of life. We must face fears to truly live, but we need to do so with intelligence. Preparedness, strength, and knowhow are great, but the greatest of survival skills is intelligence along with some sense. 

Back to the hike at hand, Mount Washburn was named after Henry D. Washburn who led the Washburn Expedition in 1870 to explore Yellowstone and make detailed maps and observations which would eventually be used in designating it a National Park. The expedition is described in Nathaniel P. Langford’s book, “The Discovery of Yellowstone Park.” I chose this hike because I was craving a mountain top view, a manageable day hike, and the guide book I was following had it in the itinerary. At six miles round trip it was quite manageable. It was three miles up, reaching 10,243 feet and a quick three miles down. The hike was very much out in the open and trailed what looked like, at times, a road. It probably served so for the fire lookout at the top. The mountainside was mostly rock and grass, but there were also large stretches of dead trees, mostly light grey and barren like driftwood, others charred dark from forest fire. Across the landscape in the distance were many valleys, rolling hills, and wild planes with pockets of trees tucked in here and there. Further up the hike, large snow drifts spilled onto the trail. Then snow was everywhere. Alongside me a thick pine forest stretched out in the great expanse and climbed up other mountains ladened with snow. Fluffy rounded clouds contrasted the rich blue of the sky and cast shadows all over the wide landscape. Purple fringed gentian bloomed along the way, seeming to delight in the cold but sunny mountainside.

At the top a firetower stood and a sign marked the elevation. The view atop was nothing outstanding from the views all along the way up: rolling hill after rolling hill, pine forest, dark shadows cast by the clouds, and mountain peaks of snow in the distance. Most everything was painted a shade of blue from the sky’s reflection on the terrain. I satisfied my mountaintop craving, but realized Yellowstone is perhaps better explored by means of its geothermal features, rivers, and lakes below. 

Once back at the car, and safe from all bear encounters, I’d drive over to the Grand Canyon Village once again for dinner, then I’d pass by Yellowstone Lake at sunset on the way back to my campground. On the side of the road opposite the lake, water flowed into a little pond. I pulled over as I observed the most stunning display of colors. Vibrant deep blue and orange, cast in the sky by the sunset, reflected into the pond with the dark silhouettes of trees. It was the most beautiful deep and rich display of colors. I really savored this view and the moment. 

This was not the only time I made a spontaneous pull off to the side of the road because beauty caught my eye. I had done it quite a few times throughout my stay in the park. Usually if one sees another car pulled over at a seemingly random spot, it’s because someone spotted some wildlife, and soon cars began to pile up. In this fashion, on a later trip to Yellowstone, I’d see my first wolf. At one point this day I pulled over because I noticed some beautiful flowers, and I wanted to take their picture. Then a number of cars slowed down, some pulled over. “What do you see? What do you see? Is there a bear, a buffalo?”

“No, I’m just taking a picture of some flowers,” I responded. They seemed disappointed, dismissed me and drove on. Oftentimes, in a quest to find the biggest or most shocking feature on the land, some people miss out on the exquisite detail of the smaller, finer things, like the flowers along the way, or the colors of the sunset reflected in the waters.

When I reached my campground I had completed a full day. Hiking up Mount Washburn was one of the final things I did. I had also visited the Mammoth Hot Springs area earlier and took in the unique stacks of thermal springs. I took a self guided tour of Fort Yellowstone at Mammoth Hot Springs where the U.S. Army was stationed to patrol the park in early days. Now the buildings which constitute the fort are ranger residences. My mind was captivated with the thought, and I daydreamed, of  what it would be like to call this place home. These buildings were homes. People lived here, had families here, had cookouts in the backyard as children played. Inside was their furniture, their things. This was their home, and it was in Yellowstone! How incredible! On a side note- something that rightfully needs to be documented, for it changed my life- here in the Mammoth Village I discovered huckleberry licorice, which would go on to become my favorite candy.

After visiting Mammoth Hot Springs, I visited Roosevelt Arch, and stepped foot into Montana for the first time. I then took Blacktail Drive, a scenic park drive on a gravel road. It was quite serene and I saw quite a number of buffalo there. I also took in the Calcite Springs Overlook. Midday I found myself sitting on a rocking chair on the porch at Roosevelt Lodge. This lodge and cabin complex was built in the 1920s at the site where Theodore Roosevelt once camped by llamar valley. It is rustic and has a lot of warm charm. I had already eaten and was not hungry, but I looked at the menu at the lodge. I saw a cozy dining room while a fireplace crackled. The buffalo burger on a corn bread roll really jumped out at me, and I kicked myself for not waiting to eat here. Someday on one of my journeys between Kentucky and Montana, I want to stop here and have the full Roosevelt Lodge experience. 

After my third full day in Yellowstone, I felt like I got to know the park, but knew there was much more to see and discover. I would come back and visit again. Next on my summer adventure plan was a stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho, but before I left Yellowstone in the morning, I would find myself in a “buffalo jam,” as they call it. At least fifty buffalo overtook the road I was on. I came to a complete stop in my vehicle as buffalo of all sizes crowded around. They walked slowly around my vehicle. It was incredible. I saw buffalo calves for the first time. They look like strange deformed ponies, I thought. At one point a large buffalo stopped right in front of my car. He stared at me through the windshield. He nodded his head toward the right and then the left, and then looked back at me. It was as if he didn’t know he had to walk around the car. Oh No! I then became a bit concerned that the buffalo might try pushing my car or walking up upon it. After a few minutes it figured out the solution was to walk around. I could have lowered down my window and pet it’s back, it was so close. I was thrilled. This buffalo jam was perhaps the most unique and marvelous wildlife encounter I had ever had thus far. More kept coming and coming. I felt so fortunate to be here at just the right moment. I couldn’t have imagined a better crowd to wish me farewell on my journey.

Read the previous entry “Why I Cried at Roosevelt Arch- What Theodore Roosevelt and the National Parks Mean to Me” here: Why I Cried at Roosevelt Arch – What Theodore Roosevelt and the National Parks Mean to Me – on the verge (

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here:

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