Epic Road Trip, Part V: The End of a Bear-y Exciting Journey

Welcome to the last entry of my epic road trip series. Part IV took us through two phenomenal days of exploring Yellowstone. At the end of Day 6 (Wednesday), we dejectedly said goodbye to Yellowstone as we drove through the entrance where others were just beginning their journey on the opposite side of the road. But our adventure for the day wasn’t over just yet…

On the way back to our cabin in Ashton, Idaho, we decided to stop at Mesa Falls. Robert at Rankin Motel had suggested it as a must-see attraction. It’s a beautiful waterfall located on the Henrys Fork of the Snake River. We know this not because we saw it in person, but solely from our internet research the night before. You see, we didn’t exactly make it all the way to the observation deck to see the falls. A certain four-legged creature stood in our way.

We pulled into the Mesa Falls parking lot in the early evening. The visitor center had closed for the day and the whole place was deserted. We came up to a drop slot where you’re supposed to deposit $5 admission if you stopped there after-hours. I’m sure that many visitors ignore this request and walk down to the falls for free, but we felt that five bucks was a fantastic deal to see more of Idaho’s wondrous landscape. I hopped out of the car and threw in my money, casually noticing a posted sign that read (in all caps) “REMEMBER THIS IS BEAR COUNTRY!”

Imagine the “Jaws” theme song playing while you’re looking at this photo.

As the sun began its daily descent, we parked and got out. The walkway to the observation deck was paved, but it was surrounded on both sides by tall grass that was easily waist-high (I’m 5’6″ on a good day, so the grass would probably be knee-high for the rest of you). As we started walking down the path, the grass suddenly rustled over to our left and I saw a dark-colored hump jostling around.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out it was a bear. Not a beaver, a deer, an elk, or a steer. It was a bona fide come-closer-if-you-dare bear. As much as I wanted to see the waterfalls, I also didn’t want to screw with a bear – grizzly, black, Yogi, whatever.

In all the Yellowstone literature, it mentions time and again that you shouldn’t run away from bears; it triggers their predatory instincts and invites them to chase you (translation: you’ll look like a running piece of meat).

I’m not going to lie; my wife and I both wanted to run like hell. However, we surprisingly remembered what we read and slowly walked back to the parking lot. Call me a wuss, but that was the best $5 donation I’ve ever made.

After our last night in Ashton, we were up early to head down Wyoming. Over the next two days, we hit a pair of spectacular parks: the Grand Tetons and Rocky Mountain. Like my last post on Yellowstone, I’m going to go the smart route and let the photos do the talking:

The stunning Grand Tetons….. which translates to something in French that I probably shouldn’t type here.
I’m convinced you can create your own scenic calendar just by holding up your camera in the Tetons and randomly snapping it a dozen times.
The Rocky Mountains… contrary to what Lloyd Christmas said in “Dumb & Dumber,” John Denver is NOT full of it.
This pic was taken by my wife and her sister at 12,000 feet above sea level. If you direct your attention to the red arrow, you’ll see the precise spot where I was taking a midday nap in the back of our car.
We came across a line of stopped vehicles in Rocky Mountain; unfortunately, this was because of a lightning strike. Eight people were hit, including one person killed. In this pic, I’m surveying the lineup of traffic behind us.

On Friday night (our last night of the trip), we had a relaxed night out with Mr. & Mrs. Boulder at a Sherpa restaurant named (appropriately enough) Sherpa’s Restaurant. If you’re not familiar with Sherpas, these are the guys who guide climbers up Mount Everest. My wife has a bookshelf full of Mount Everest books, so this place was right up her alley.

Sherpa food... not made from actual Sherpas.
Sherpa food… not made from actual Sherpas.

Since we had a long drive ahead of us the next day, a good night’s sleep was the primary objective. Unfortunately, some drunk punks next door decided to be loud jerks well into the night. So I gave them exactly what they deserved: an unannounced appearance by Boulder’s finest. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, as I was starting to doze off, I heard the pleasant sound of one drunk kid yelling “OH ****! IT’S THE COPS!” Needless to say, I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

We said goodbye to Mr. & Mrs. Boulder on Saturday and rolled our way east on Interstate 80, stopping briefly at the Omaha Half Price Books to snag some deals. We reached home sweet home by evening, threw our stuff on the floor, and subsequently collapsed. We were exhausted and sweaty, but the trip was worth every ounce of sweat and every one of our 3,500 miles on the road. After a well-deserved sleep, we woke up the next morning and already started wondering where our travels would take us next.

To close out the epic road trip series, I’d like to share eight things I learned during this journey:

1. It’s possible to overcome language barriers. A Japanese man pointed out trout to me, and my wife and I had our pic taken by a German woman. Even though neither of these tourists spoke English, we were still able to communicate with them.

2. National parks belong to everyone. It’s easy to think that Yellowstone belongs to Wyoming or Rocky Mountain belongs to Colorado. In reality, those parks belong to all of us.

3. You can dine on fine cuisine at numerous places, including a Mediterranean place, a Sherpa restaurant, and a family dining establishment. But sometimes, the best meal of the trip ends up being something simple, like a jumbo hot dog and chips at Yellowstone. Mmmmmmm, processed hog anus.

4. If you’re wearing a Hawkeye shirt and you see another tourist wearing a Hawkeye shirt, you will most likely go over and say hi… followed by a mutual exchange of “GO HAWKEYES!”

5. Consequently, if you are wearing a Hawkeye shirt and you see a tourist wearing the shirt of another Big Ten school, you will undoubtedly give each other the stink eye. This was put to the test in Rocky Mountain when I stood beside a kid in a Wisconsin shirt who was standing beside a man in an Ohio State shirt who was standing beside a woman in a Penn State shirt. Trust me, even the Wisconsin kid understood the concept of stink eye.

6. Your cat’s voice will hit a new octave when she hasn’t seen you for nine days… that was actually learned after the trip.

7. When comparing this trip to my trip 10 years ago, I can tell that digital photography has changed us as a society. Walk around a national park and you’ll see that everyone’s holding up a camera, smartphone, or iPad. Everyone seems to be content with seeing breathtaking scenery through a small screen. My wife took practically all of the photos that I used in this blog series. What you don’t see is that while she was taking those photos, I was soaking up the mountains, the rivers, the lakes, the forests, the waterfalls, the sights, the sounds, the beauty, and yes, the bison. The next time you’ve got something awesome in front of you (mountains, rock stars, rainbows, unicorns, whatever), ask yourself how many times you’ll look at those photos before they get relegated to a flash drive that sits in a drawer, collecting dust. Photos are nice, but they’re not as special as the memories of these amazing places and experiences.

8. The Coughing Bison are alive and well.

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