Its 330 miles from Whitefish to the town of Bozeman, Montana on highway 90. Half of the journey is through Flathead National Park, which is a long straight, empty stretch of road through dense, virgin forest. We passed few cars and even fewer settlements. Inevitably, when you spend time alone on a deserted highway, your mind begins to turn to thoughts of break downs and blown tyres. This would not be a good place to be stranded. We had additional insurance cover in the event we broke down but would there even be mobile coverage out here? From the margins of the forest deer’s scattered as we passed. What else lurked out there?
Almost three hours later we exited the forest and re-entered the world of men. We passed the rugged silver mining town of Butte. The mountains around the town looked scarred and barren, as of devastated by war. There seemed not a single blade of greenery to be seen.
We arrived in Bozeman just before dusk. We drove through the town centre to orientate ourselves before finding a motel for the night. We quickly scrubbed up and set out. We walked the length of the main street and checked in at several bars and restaurants. We settled on Bozeman’s upmarket wine bar, Plonk (what a great name) for dinner. After two weeks of drinking beer, it was a pleasure to drink some decent wine. I had the bison tenderloin and Shelly had the airline chicken (with pistachio quinoa) which were without a shadow of doubt the BEST MEAL we’d ever had in the US. Very satisfied!
The next morning we decided to set off early so that we could maximise our time at Yellowstone (getting away before 9am is a real struggle for us these days!). Because we intended to enter Yellowstone from the East we took the highway towards Billings, wound our way across the mountain pass to Livingstone and then …… boof! Thunka, thunka, thunk. One of our rear tyres blew. I pulled the car to the verge near the intersection with highway 91.
For a moment we both just sat there thinking, okay, what now? It’d been years since I’d changed a tyre (I think in my entire life I’ve only had to do it once). So we pull all the luggage out of the boot to reach the spare tyre and …… no spare tyre. Instead there was a small vacuum sealed box containing an electric pump and puncture sealant. I guess in this age of general mechanical incompetence (have you looked at a modern car engine?) this is an easier solution than replacing a tyre. There is of course one flaw in this solution – if the tyre shreds or has anything more than a pinhole puncture it is completely useless. Our tyre was unsalvageable and the pump did nothing more than send air whistling through the gaping split. We moved to Plan B – phone Alamo Car Hire. Alamo were very helpful and sent a tow truck to pick us up. Fortunately we less than an hour away from Bozeman where Alamo had an office.
All in all the blow out cost us over three hours. Alamo gave us a new car – a silver Kia Rio to replace our red Hyundai Elantra. Although similarly spec’d cars, I have to say the Hyundai handled better than Kia.
As we’d lost so much time we revised our plans and headed directly south to the township of West Yellowstone. This took us through the park from the north and we quickly realised that travelling through Yellowstone can be quite a slow process. Although we had to be checked in a Yellowstone Under Canvas by 8pm we couldn’t help but stop and take in the stunning scenery. At Mammoth Springs we spent over an hour walking around the hot springs. And there were animals everywhere. In the middle of a roundabout in Mammoth Springs village a deer sat unconcernedly chewing the cud. We made it to Yellowstone Under Canvas as the sun was setting.
Yellowstone Under Canvas is a collection of ‘glamping’ tents and facilities in a field just outside the National Park. http://www.mtundercanvas.com/ It’s scenic, romantic and very cold. Night-time temperatures were down to zero degrees Celsius. Fortunately our tent had a fire and some very, very warm doonas.
That evening we drove to the nearby Bar-N-Ranch restaurant for dinner. http://www.bar-n-ranch.com/ The restaurant is decked out like a wood cabin and filled with stuffed animal dioramas that put the Smithsonian Museum to shame. The food was nice but not as good as Plonk.
Later in the evening our sleep was disturbed by rowdy neighbours across the valley. In the still air sound travels far and we could hear the sounds of at least three people sitting around a campfire arguing. Then the shooting began. Starting with a single shot rang that instantly dispelled any notion of sleep, it followed by many more. Two shots and then a long pause. Then another single shot. Voices raised in argument. A whole magazine loosed into the night. Another long pause. More argument. Then another magazine fired deliberately, slowly… one….. two…… three…. and so on. It was quite disconcerting. I stepped out of the tent momentarily to see if I could determine where the shots were coming from – they sounded so close. In the far distance I could see a dot of fire shimmering in the blackness. Our binoculars bought it into sharper focus but I still couldn’t make anything out. It seemed pretty far away. The gun happy idiots finally called it a night about 2am.
We mentioned this to the staff the next morning and they shrugged. Some people in town don’t like tourists they said. In the daylight I couldn’t see the campfire but was somewhat comforted to note that there was a river running across the valley floor between us and them.
Yellowstone National Park was founded in 1872 is the first national park in the world. The park sits in the remains of a collapsed caldera of a gigantic super-volcano. The area is seismically and thermally active and should the volcano ever erupt in the future it has the explosive potential to destroy much of continental North America. Scattered across the park are geysers, like Old Faithful, and bubbling mud pools. We saw one of the three American ‘Old Faithful’ geysers in Calistoga, California a couple of years ago. Sure enough it erupted right on time and was quite impressive, even though it was a relatively small geyser. Old Faithful in Yellowstone was larger by a significant margin. The geyser erupts roughly every 90 minutes and can last between 5 and 15 minutes.
Beside the geyser (and I mean right beside) is the magnificent Old Faithful Hotel. Built in 1903-04 in the style of a gigantic log cabin, it established its own architectural style which has been copied in other parks, such as Glacier National Park. We stopped at the hotel for a nice buffet lunch.
The park’s other main attraction is its animals. We’d both hoped to see bison in the park and boy, did we? On several occasions we were stopped by large herds of up to a hundred individuals. The bison seemed unconcerned by cars and wandered right up to us. One herd decided to walk along to the road, bringing traffic to a standstill for over an hour. A large bull walked so close to our car that I could have reached out and touched him – but I didn’t. They are large, wild animals after all, no matter how docile they appear. Even though we saw hundreds of bison we never grew tired of them and we always pulled over to watch them.
We saw a few grizzly bears and a couple of moose, but nowhere near as many as in Alaska. There were quite a few caribou and deer around and we even saw a beaver once. I thought we would have seen more of them. We didn’t see any wolves, coyotes or black bears, which I thought was odd as black bears are more common than grizzly’s. The abundance of wildlife and awesome scenery meant every drive through the park took way longer than we anticipated. We spent three whole days in the park and were never bored.