Visit Yellowstone Before it Blows Up


We were sitting on a wooden bench in Yellowstone National Park, less than one hundred yards from a grumbling Old Faithful, when tragedy struck.

“NO! STOP!” I yelled. I reached out a hand, but a moment too late. The look of shock and disbelief on Barb’s face said it all. One minute we were chatting happily, unwrapping a couple of delicious sandwiches, and a few seconds later there was nothing left for us to do but pick up the shattered pieces.

It happened so fast. A sudden gust of wind came out of nowhere and blew a just-opened bag of Lay’s Barbecue potato chips off the bench, spilling the entire contents onto the ground. We hadn’t eaten even a single chip yet.

“Aw, man,” I whined. We got down on our hands and knees and began sweeping the dirty chips into a pile. Barb stopped me from popping one into my mouth. “Five second rule,” I said, blowing pine needles and dead bugs off the chip.

“Not in a heavily trampled pedestrian area,” she said. She’s a scientist. I don’t argue with her about stuff like that. People began trotting past us, heading for the boardwalk that surrounds Old Faithful. A low, hissing rumble came from the general direction of the world’s most famous geyser.

“You hear that?” said Barb, looking up.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s my stomach. I really wanted some of those chips.”

A crowd of people jammed the boardwalk, five deep, as Old Faithful proved true to its name, spewing tons of scalding water and steam into the summer sky. The chik chik of hundreds of iPhone cameras filled the air like digital crickets.

Standing up, I brushed my hands off on my shorts and looked around as the crowd of tourists cheered and yelled, awed by the power and beauty of the towering geyser.

“You know,” I said to Barb, “there’s probably not too many people in the snack bar right now. Good time to go get some more chips.”


Late summer in Yellowstone, the roads are humming with solid lines of traffic and the campgrounds are full to bursting with visitors from all over the world who come to spend time in this jewel of the National Park system. Yellowstone is, of course, the very first National Park. Its two million acres lie mostly in Wyoming, but Montana and Idaho also lay claim to the Park by dint of the sliver located within their borders. But you’ll see license plates from every state in the Union on motorhomes, Harleys, rented convertibles and SUVs as they roll along the Park’s serpentine system of blacktop, looking for elk, bison, wolves, deer, bears, birds, and all the other wildlife the Park is lousy with.

The other way to get around Yellowstone is to book a tour aboard one of the Historic Yellow Buses, the cleverly named vintage vehicles that can be seen throughout the Park, sometimes roaring around a corner and scaring the bejesus out of some poor buffalo who looks like he just escaped from the back of a nickel.

Yellow Bus Visit Yellowstone Park

Bears are sometimes hard to spot in Yellowstone. You have to know where to look.

The bus drivers are also tour guides, interpretive specialists who have been regaling their guests with massive piles of information about every aspect of the Park since motorized buses replaced stagecoaches in 1917. The buses are late-1930s White Motor Company Model 706 tour coaches, the same model used in Glacier National Park. Both fleets of buses have been refurbished recently, their wood-framed bodies given modern safety features and fitted to heavy duty chassis powered by big Ford engines.

Inside, modern amenities abound. Passengers can get their bearings by accessing the buses’ GPS system, which involves something called “unfolding a paper map.” Onboard entertainment is available through a device called a “window.”

Barb and I took the Firehole Adventure tour, which starts at Old Faithful Inn and goes through the Firehole Basin, all the way up the Firehole Canyon to Firehole Falls on the Firehole River. I began to sense a theme.

(Coincidentally, “Firehole Adventure” is the name of my favorite dish at a popular Mexican restaurant in East Glacier.)

Our guide, Rob Hickox, had a couple of guests help him roll back the big canvas roof of the bus for maximum visibility and scalp sunburn potential. He introduced himself and told us a little about what we could expect to see on our three hour tour. A three hour tour. For the next three hours he casually rattled of nugget after nugget of arcane information about the plants, animals, geology and history of the Park.

I learned that a serotinous tree needs to reach a temperature of 113 degrees before it releases its seed-bearing cones. I learned that a crepuscular animal is neither nocturnal nor diurnal, but becomes most active at twilight. You know, like your druncle at happy hour. I learned that trees in the Park decompose at a rate of one percent per year. I have concert t-shirts that are decomposing faster than that.

I learned that a nylon cord attached to a can of Vienna sausages lowered into a geothermal pool will melt. Should have used twine. I learned that most of the other 13 passengers on our tour wouldn’t know a fumarole from a glory hole. I learned that the 1959 earthquake that created nearby Quake Lake moved 35 million tons of rock, which is approximately the same amount of river rock I removed from our yard to build our herb garden.

The Historic Yellow Bus tour was fun and super informative, but for a lot of you the best way to experience the Park is to get out in it, whether on foot or bike or in a watercraft. Barb and I rode our bikes along a few designated bike trails. I prefer biking to hiking, because you can get there, see the thing or the place, and get quickly back to your campsite in time to listen to Jeopardy blasting from the little TV in that RV three spaces over, cranked up loud enough to be heard over their generator.

No doubt about it, we are lucky to live within a few hours’ drive of one of the most beautiful, weird, humbling and inspiring places in the world. Typically, a lot of us don’t go to Yellowstone unless we’re entertaining out-of-staters. But don’t wait for Aunt Molly to come visit from her trailer park in Florida. Pack a lunch, spray yourself with tourist repellant, and go rediscover the splendor and breath-taking natural beauty that is Yellowstone Park this summer. And make sure you bring extra potato chips. You never know.

Check back next week for the second part of Bob’s National Park series, featuring Glacier Park.

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.


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