Weird Times in Wonderful Places: One Last Trip Into Yellowstone During COVID-19

On March 23rd, I decided to take a trip into Yellowstone National Park, a short drive from my current location. I had a feeling it may be my last trip into the park for awhile and I was right. The following is a story I wrote for a new podcast I am a part of, which is shared below. Whether you read it all or listen to the audio, I thank you for your time and for listening to my thoughts. You can subscribe to the A Life Outside Podcast here

I stopped my car at a pump in front of a gas station and took a deep breath.

I was going to look ridiculous, but it what was needed. 

I reached into my center console and pulled out a latex glove, one of a few dozen that I have in my emergency hiking kits. Earlier, I had debated donating my gloves to the nearby Quick Care or hospital, but I didn’t. I wanted to help, but I also wanted to keep myself safe. I tried to convince myself that a dozen or so latex gloves wouldn’t really help. I beat myself up over this as I snapped on the glove. 

My gloves were purple, but my mood was matching the weather in town, growing more gray by the hour. 

Bad weather messes with me. I hate that it does, but the moment a gray day arrives after a few days of sun, my head hangs low. Like I am trying to keep my face dry in a rain shower. I spent my formative years in Grays Harbor County, the place that tossed a few logs on the bonfire that was Kurt Cobain’s depression. Or so I assume. Generally, people who aren’t depressed don’t kill themselves with a shot gun. 

“And I swear that I don’t have a gun.” 

The lyrics stopped abruptly as I opened my door. Cars built in the 2010s do all sorts of strange things. The car behind me at the pump had Montana plates and the man was wearing a cowboy hat. 

Great, I thought to myself, preparing myself to get mocked. Or at least side eyed.

I probably deserved it a little. It was 35 Fahrenheit out and cloudy. I was in shorts and a thin hoody, trail running hat and sunglasses. The normal look for me 360 days a year. The other five (or six on leap years) days, the temperature is below zero. I also don’t, until this week, normally wear a purple latex glove on my right hand either. Or my left. 

With my unsheathed hand, I swiped my card in the card reader and prepaid. $2.19 a gallon. Down a dime a gallon in three days. 

Had it really just been three days since the last time I got gas? It had felt like weeks.  

The cowboy ignored me and drove off. Maybe he was fearful of my Washington plates. 

I finished pumping gas, closed the gas cap, tossed the glove in the trash and drove south. 

A pit in my stomach had spurred on a trip down Highway 89, letting me pass under the Roosevelt Arch for one last trip into Yellowstone. 

I had heard rumors, but was fighting to believe them. 

They won’t close the park. 

They will just shut down the infrastructure, close the hotels and us locals can have our National Park through this madness. 

My soul wanted to believe this, but my brain knew better. They were going to close the park. COVID-19 claimed another casualty. This time, it was the National Park in my backyard. 

As I was driving out of town, a thought hit me. the plan is to be ready to have the town shut down to entry and exit once the hospital beds are full. There are not that many beds. Because of this thought, driving out of town was a little unsettling. How many times will I be able to do this in the next few months? Weird times are being found in wonderful places.

The drive down 89, through Paradise Valley was as pretty as ever. The rugged peaks ripped open holes in the clouds, giving me sunny views of the the mountains I will be scaling in a few months. My mood was lifting. By the time I reached Mallards Rest, an elevated overlook over a horseshoe bend of the Yellowstone River, I was smiling. 

Looking Southwest at Mallards Rest in Montana’s Paradise Valley

The big skies of Montana are my backyard right now for a reason. My soul needs it. My sanity depends on being able to get into nature quick, fending off panic attacks and bouts of depression. Here, the sadness and worry has always been replaced; my spirit becomes adventurous and carefree. 

Well, that was true. 

Now, escaping news of coronavirus is next to impossible. My hand works on its own, disconnected from the rest of my body and loads the news on my phone. It then positions the screen in front of my eyes, forcing me to take in the words. 17 times a day seems like a realistic number. While every other part of me is weak with worry, my arm never tires. 

Passing elk herds and nervously driving through patchy pockets of deer, I was excited to get to the park. I would have four hours before before sunset and wanted to make the most of it. I wanted to see the coyotes search for food in the windswept snows in Lamar Valley. I wanted to get stuck behind bison as they walk down the road. I wanted to see the rivers, the waterfalls and the mountains again. 

Arriving in the gateway town of Gardiner, the town was dead, except for a few elk grazing in yards. Near the Roosevelt Arch, a handful of cars sat in the parking lot, spaced out to show they understood our current social distancing protocols. The normalcy at which we can stand six feet away from the closest human is surprisingly easy. At least for me. Honestly, I am probably more social during this pandemic than I am when the world doesn’t feel to be falling apart with so much speed. Now, instead of being a hermit in a house in Montana, I chat with people online, text family and friends throughout the day, and attempt to post a few inspiring images on social media. For me, that is usually a lot to do in a week, but I am doing this daily now. Social distancing is how I have lived for decades. 

I snapped a few pictures to show how empty Gardiner was, drove under the arch, as is the custom to have a good day and entered the park. The guard station, which normally collects entry fees and hands out maps, was closed. Parks were now free to enter. Which many had taken advantage of the previous weekend. National Parks around the country became filled to the brim with people wanting to escape their towns and lockdowns. Little did they care that they were potentially bringing a deadly virus into towns where the nearest hospital is an hour away. The towns people got pissed, and for good reason. They called the Governor in huge numbers, sent messages to the park and flooded the movers and shakers in the state to unify in closing the park. The anger was a boil by Sunday night, which is why I knew I should go on Monday. It usually takes a day for government agencies to shut down. But that is a story for a much more boring day. 

Gardiner, Montana on March 23rd, 2020

Right away, I saw bison and elk, and even the return of the pronghorn antelope from their winter grounds hundreds of miles away. I weaved through the canyon along the Gardner River, climbing in elevation toward Mammoth Hot Springs. No cars were around on this section and when I got to Mammoth, I was shocked to see so few cars. There was no movement, just steam rising from the vents around the buildings. I turned left at the Mammoth Hotel and continued to the Northern Range. 

Yellowstone is ridiculous. In 15 miles, I drove by elk and bison, over a beautiful river, past a waterfall that was breaking free of ice and next to a pond where earlier in the day, wolves and a grizzly had been feeding on a bison that was thawing out after falling in earlier in the winter. I should have left earlier. 

Every few miles, I would have to stop, as bison wandered the road, getting within inches of my car. Rolling the window down, I took a few pictures with my iPhone and drove off. I should have stayed longer. 

My goal on this day was non-existent. Normally, I have a trail to explore, an overlook to photograph or an animal for which I search. I knew in my gut that this day may be my last and I just wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to be mesmerized by the park, however it wanted to share its beauty with me. I would let the wind blow me through the park, following the rivers and canyons. I would have one last dance with my love, before we had to part ways for an unknown time. 

I wanted to feel Yellowstone. I wanted to smell it. I wanted to bask in its wilderness glory until I smelled of sage, sulphur and juniper. 

And I did. 

I sat at a pull out in Lamar Valley for a half an hour in silence. A coyote walked right by me, breaking the six foot barrier to which the rest of the country is adhering. I was in my car, and he saw me, but didn’t care. Sadly, he was looking for food, eagerly looking at me through the open window. My heart broke a little, but then he wandered away and was hunting for rodents and peeing on plants. Whew. He wasn’t fully dependent, just frustratingly habituated. 

Maybe the closure will be good for him. Maybe he will forget about cars and people and unnatural foods. Maybe he will become an amazing hunter, earning the respect of all of the other coyotes and even the wolves. 

Maybe he won’t make it. Maybe the last few storms will be too much. Maybe he will be taking his final steps in a valley that has written this story a million times. Maybe he was thinking what I was thinking. 

He walked back toward my car, looked at me and wandered to where the road met the deep snow. He looked back at me, then to the mountains and the snow clouds, the few trees standing tall in the whiteness. He took a step and didn’t sink. He took another and appeared to be floating on the frozen tundra. 

Maybe he will make it. Maybe he won’t. But he is living and trying. Hustling and fighting. Making everything out of the cards he was dealt.

Maybe I was just projecting. Maybe this pandemic terrifies me. Maybe I am so scared at times that I just want to follow the coyote into the wilds. 

That is the thing about COVID-19. Even when you don’t have it, you have it. You are under its spell, transfixed and limited by it in everything you do. The shortness of breath, the panic and anxiety. We can’t escape its grip. 

After the coyote rounded the bend, I drove a bit further toward Soda Butte, but felt like turning back. Daylight hours were starting to dwindle and I wanted to see if the bear or wolves had returned to the ponds. 

I don’t know why I stopped, but I did. 

Just as Lamar Valley ends to the west, there is a small pull out that overlooks the Lamar River. I have stopped here very few times in my decades of visits, but on this day I felt drawn to it. 

I got out of my car and stood still. Before me, a small section of the river was visible through the broken ice and snow. As I took in the scene, a great horned owl hooted in the distance. I answered it. It answered me back. 

We chatted a couple more times over the next 10 minutes, but I knew I had to go. I thanked the owl. I thanked the river. I thanked the roads and started up my car. 

Along the Lamar River in Yellowstone National Park

Driving out, I swung by the pond one more time, but there wasn’t any activity. The morning combo of bear and wolves had left the decomposing bison into nothing more than a head, which was being picked over by a few ravens. A few photographers with lenses that cost more than my car, sat hopeful. Whether they knew that this would be their last day in the park or not remains a mystery, but they were making the most of it. They were social distancing.

I continued on, accepting of my day and happy for the one I had. For a few glorious hours, I could only be concerned with my immediate surroundings. I passed a few more bison and elk. Saw an eagle flying and some antelope running. Then, I left the park boundary. 

I wanted to stop, but didn’t. I had a great day and didn’t want feelings of sadness to change that. Focus on what you had. Think of what you’ll have in the future. Don’t dwell on what you will be missing. 

On my drive home, the reality once again kicked in that so many I knew and loved were in the danger zone. I called my parents. I told them I loved them. I asked them if they were staying home and being safe. I told them I was worried about them. 

They asked me about my day. They wanted to escape into the park with me. They wanted to hear my stories instead of dealing with their current reality of being locked down in Washington State. They wanted to know that I was doing well and that I was smiling. 

The park closed the next day. Yellowstone is now off limits. My place of peace and serenity is close enough to touch, but I am not allowed. Forbidden fruit that I won’t be able to resist for too long.

The pandemic is impacting all of us, and while the closure of parks isn’t the biggest or most important issue, by any stretch of the imagination, I feel like I lost something. I now wonder what is next. Will I soon be stuck inside for weeks? Will I stay healthy? Will I lose anyone I care about. 

This is the reality of my day to day. I work hard to ignore it all, but I can’t get away from it for too long. I am impacted by this virus, like most of the world. Everything has changed, but those brief moments in nature are holding me together. 

All I, and any of us, can do is go through the day as best we can. How this will all end is unwritten, like the life of the coyote in the valley.

Here is hoping for many more springs of exploring the outdoors.