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In Search Of Big Furry Things — Cowboy Country, Pt. 3

Traveling through Wyoming and Montana looking for bears and bison

***It has been pretty much impossible to share new Dr. Tan’s Travels articles or send out alerts when they are posted recently, because the URL for Dr. Tan’s Travels was blocked unexpectedly toward the end of June without warning or any reason given by certain social media sites. Despite constant appeals, that doesn’t look like changing any time soon, but I’ll keep trying to get it fixed and a big thank you to those who keep checking in to read my page, I truly appreciate it. Please keep it up too, we have a bunch of trips coming up!***

Recently I’ve been telling the story of our journey around the Pacific Northwest of the USA in July: In part one we spent a night in transit in Los Angeles, followed by a few nights in Jackson, Wyoming for Anna’s conference, as well as trekking through mountains, whitewater rafting, and trying to avoid line-dancing while dressed like complete idiots at a cowboy-themed dinner. Part two was the first instalment of the holiday leg of the this trip, where we went glamping and hiked through national parks in both Wyoming and Montana, seeing plenty of geysers and other geothermal activity, but unfortunately, not a whole lot on the wildlife front thus far.
Now it’s time to conclude this tale and it’s always good to go out with a bang. We saw a lot of cool stuff over the final few days of this trip!

Saturday, July 13, 2019
We had just spent our second and final night of glamping in our Stargazer tent just out of West Yellowstone in southwest Montana. Now it was time to get back to relative civilisation, however, it was going to require a bit of driving to get to our final abode for this adventure, Lake Yellowstone Hotel back in Wyoming.
Before we left we took another walk around the grounds of where we were staying, grabbed a coffee, played with an enormous dog belonging to some fellow guests, and then we were off.

When I was first thinking of titles for this post I had a few ideas, mainly related to works by artists that I love; My favourite band, Ween, have a b-side called Mountains and Buffalo, a rather apt title once you continue reading. Also, before it became a classic film of the same name starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, Hunter S. Thompson‘s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was loosely adapted into a bad movie with Bill Murray in the lead role called Where the Buffalo Roam, a title that would also turn out to be an appropriate one for this piece. There was just one problem with both of these titles that bothered me — Although both references are of American origin, the animals found in the US aren’t technically buffalo, as buffalo are only found in Africa and South-East Asia. The animals we were going to encounter are Bison:

The term “buffalo” is sometimes considered to be a misnomer for this animal, as it is only distantly related to either of the two “true buffalo”, the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. Samuel de Champlain applied the term buffalo (buffles in French) to the bison in 1616 (published 1619), after seeing skins and a drawing shown to him by members of the Nipissing First Nation, who said they travelled 40 days (from east of Lake Huron) to trade with another nation who hunted the animals. Though “bison” might be considered more scientifically correct, as a result of standard usage, “buffalo” is also considered correct and is listed in many dictionaries as an acceptable name for American buffalo or bison. Buffalo has a much longer history than bison, which was first recorded in 1774.

Whichever you want to call them (I’ll be using bison, a term that is apparently becoming more common anyway), there were a ton of them along the way to our new hotel and it wouldn’t be the last time we ran into them, either.
Here are a few shots from our park and some of the bison we encountered as we were driving:

Finally, we had stumbled upon some animals worth seeing! Once we had spent enough time with the bison we returned to Wyoming and checked into the exceptionally large Lake Yellowstone Hotel. It was a beautiful hotel overlooking the lake, there was an enormous dining room and bar that was to have a live jazz band playing that night, and our room was big with a Nespresso machine and different types of coffee pods. However, if you take a look at that link you will instantly notice that we were going to be off the grid again for another couple of days, as there was no TV or wifi. Don’t get me wrong, there was wired internet with an ethernet cable right next to the bed, but I don’t think I’ve owned a device that one of those can even plug into in at least five years. Oh well, ignorence is bliss.

We decided to go for a walk around the area, taking in the lake and the local scenery. Besides fly-fishing, pretty much everybody’s hobby here, there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the immediate vicinity, although following a continuing theme, there was a convenience store. We knew that, despite being a Saturday, the bar in the hotel would stop serving drinks at about 10:30pm and we’ve been checking out animals at dusk on previous nights, meaning that we would probably only return to the hotel about an hour earlier so we decided to stock up on drinks. We had also wanted to go to a rodeo while we were here and the general consensus was that the only one worth going to was in a town called Cody, the self-proclaimed “Rodeo Capital of the World”, and it was also the nearest one:

Since the turn of the century, rodeos and parades have been part of the Fourth of July here in Cody, Wyoming. 90 plus years, starting officially in 1919, the Cody Stampede Rodeo has been held every summer. 2018 marks the 99th anniversary of Cody Stampede and the 80th anniversary of the nightly performances.
These two events establish Cody as not only one of the longest running successful professional rodeos, but also the only place in the country that has a rodeo performance nightly making us the Rodeo Capital of the World. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association named the Cody Stampede “Best Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year” in 1998 and 1999. In 2001 the Cody Nite Rodeo was nominated for “Best Small Outdoor Rodeo of the Year”. Night after night, Cody proves that we are rodeo, all summer long!


The only problem was that Cody was 80 miles (128 km) away so about a two-hour drive through a region where all four junctions at crossroads have stop signs for some reason and the idea of negotiating those in the dark on the opposite side of the road while rednecks in their massive trucks flew past us wasn’t all that appealing. I guess I’ll have to find another opportunity to bust out the Borat shirt (above, right).
There was an ice machine down the hallway from our room in the hotel and we had purchased a cooler for times like this so we decided to just stock up on drinks instead so we could spend the later part of the night hanging out in our room, talking, drinking, and listening to music. That meant we had to buy some beers, wine, and perhaps a bite to eat so we went down to the convenience store and got some wine, a mixed 12-pack of cans from Big Sky Brewing plus a huckleberry beer, and a chilli dog each, me trying to resist the urge to cover mine in the liquid cheese they had on tap.
Take a look around our hotel and the surrounding area:

Lunch was sorted and we had some drinks reserved for when the bar shut irresponsibly early, so now it was time to go find some animals again. We had to drive about 40 minutes to get back to an area of Yellowstone National Park where there was stuff to see and do, taking an absolutely terrifying road; it wasn’t just the potholes alone that felt like they were making the vehicle’s chassis come loose that were troubling, it was the fact that hitting one could almost make you jackknife and lose control of the car and this, the only route to take, was a dual-lane highway on the side of a mountain with no guardrail for the most part, nothing at all to stop us plummeting hundreds of metres to our fiery deaths. Add in the potential for extremely large mammals to run out in front of us at any time, as well as drivers blindly overtaking other cars, and it was impossible to take a relaxing, weekend drive. But if we wanted to do anything outside of the hotel at all, we’d need to take this road several times a day. Seriously, some of the potholes were about a metre (1.1 yd) across and growing due to the size of many of the vehicles driven around these parts constantly hitting them.

Once we had made it deep into the park we saw a whole heap of cars pulled over so we did the obvious thing and pulled over as well to take a look. On this particular occasion there were several deer up on a hill, grazing. “Not bad,” we thought, but we had already seen deer, what else has this park got to show us? Well, not 10 minutes down the road we saw a lot of people pulled over and this time we got something resembling what we had come here for — A black bear strolling around on a hillside. Ironically, I hadn’t brought the bear spray and a bear showed up, unlike previously when I constantly had it with me and never saw a single one. This black bear seemed quite a distance away, but was headed down the hill in the general direction of the road and it didn’t seem like changing its path any time soon. In this era of social media, safety comes second to getting likes so when the bear started getting close to people, many took the most minor precautions and put in the least effort to get away from it, usually standing behind the open door of their car, so they could continue filming and taking closeup photos as this massive beast walked past them and across the road. Anna and I weren’t in the direct path of the bear, more off to the side, and even we seemed more concerned than some of the people directly in front of it.
Some photos of  the deer and the bear, as well as a video of the bear walking down the hill before it got a little too close:

It was starting to get a bit late and we could now say that we had seen a bear in the wild, plus we could possibly still see more, potentially grizzlies, the next day so we thought it was probably a good idea to start heading back to the hotel. There was just one problem; we got stuck in a traffic jam — A Wyoming traffic jam. Yes, Wyoming may be the least populous state in the US, but it’s not a back up of cars or just general gridlock that causes traffic jams here, but animals. It’s not uncommon to find a lot of bison just hanging out on grassy areas and it seems that if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. It is, however, when they start wandering on the road that trouble starts. These aren’t the fastest moving animals in the world, just wandering along at a leisurely pace, and they are also massive with sharp horns so you don’t want to honk or do anything to piss them off, you just have to wait for them to get out of the way. So that’s just what we did when there were several on the road:

Then we had further problems; what Anna initially thought from a distance was a morbidly obese person turned out to be a bison slowly walking down the middle of our lane without a care in the world and it seemed like the car in front of us was stuck behind one as well. In the video, when I wind down the window you’ll be able to hear one on the side of the road, breathing heavily:

After we had had several other bison wander in front of us, as well as having to stop for a family of ducks to walk across and make their way to a pond, we had to take that terrible road again and eventually made it back to our hotel unscathed… so far. Both on the drive to Yellowstone that day and the return trip we had noticed that the trunks of many of the trees in the area were devoid of bark about two feet (60cm) above the ground and tapered inward, as if something had been rubbing against them. It was only when we returned to our hotel that we found out that this was indeed the case, as there was a rather large bison rubbing up against a tree directly in front of where we were staying. I started to film it, but it didn’t take long for the bison to lock eyes with me and stop what it was doing so that’s when I decided to get out of there. It would appear that I had made the right decision, because not long after we returned to Singapore there were not one, but two bison attacks: A nine-year-old girl was flung in the air by one in Yellowstone on July 22 and then a 17-year-old boy was gored in the thigh and flung in the air five days later! I’m just glad I bailed when I did instead of sticking around to keep filming:

Once I had regained composure and stopped sweating we went inside the hotel, had some dinner, and then pulled up a stool at the bar while the band played. Once the bar closed it was up to our room for a few more drinks and talking about what an awesome day it had been. But in reality, this had been nothing!

Sunday, July 14, 2019
Our adventure through cowboy country was coming to an end so we had to do the last full day here properly. First we went downstairs to grab a coffee each and there was another family doing the same, the father explaining to his son, who would’ve been about 16 or 17 years old, that cheese comes from milk:

Father: “When you milk a cow it’s more than just milk, there are fats as well and that is used to make cheese.”
Son: “So it isn’t just 2% that comes out?”

The father was dumbfounded. This kid didn’t realise that other dairy products come from cows and for those uninitiated with how milk is classified in the US, 2% is simply reduced fat milk. He also believed that how the milk is in the carton was exactly how it comes from the cow, which had Anna and I pissing ourselves. The thought raised so many other questions he might’ve had — Does each udder give a different type of milk, such as one for half-and-half, one for full cream, etc? Do brown cows give chocolate milk? The list goes on.

We hit the road again, taking the pothole-ridden, railless death-track to a new hiking destination, stopping at the only convenience store/gas station/toilet along the way to get a map and some snacks. We also both opted to get another takeaway coffee and immediately regretted it, while at the same time remembering why we had been drinking coffee at the hotel. Coffee from places like this is always disgusting, in this case they had the choice of filtered coffee or a cappuccino machine that had three possible options; vanilla, cinnamon, or mocha. Anna asked which option was the least sweetest and then ordered two of those, however, they still had so much sugar syrup in them that they were essentially undrinkable. Seriously, this stuff could give you diabetes instantly.
When we reached the place where we would be hiking it initially looked a little overcast so I brought a light jacket with me, a decision I wouldn’t regret. No, not because of any rain, the weather ended up being beautiful, but to protect me from the sheer amount of mosquitoes and horseflies. Despite covering ourselves in insect repellent, these things were relentless, even biting us through our clothes. My jacket, however, is windproof so I wrapped it around my head in such a manner that it only left a small slot to see through, protecting my face from getting bitten, as well as helping me conserve energy by not having to constantly swat a cloud of insects away.
IMG_2972We kept hiking for about three hours and around these parts people live extremely remote lifestyles. There were houses that we saw (left) that didn’t even have windows, let alone running water. A bit too Little House on the Prairie for my liking, especially here in the twenty-first century. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what staying in one of those places would be like during winter. Besides the remote housing and a few deer, we didn’t see a whole lot and after the previous day’s sights, deer were kind of below us now. That and the mosquitoes and horseflies were getting a bit much, to the point where some of the bites were beginning to hurt. Time to get back in the car and find some real wildlife.

Once back on the winding avenue of death we were ready to make a couple of stops along the way, but nothing could really prepare us for what we were going to see and keep in mind that I forgot to bring the bear spray again.
Our first stop was as we were passing another herd of bison. Not so much a stop, I guess, but we really had to slow down because they were right by the side of the road so I managed to snap a couple of close shots from the safety of the Corolla. About another 10 minutes later there was a crowd of people pointing into the wilderness so naturally we pulled over and there was a brown bear feeding nearby and a grizzly bear in the distance about five minutes after that. It was difficult to get decent pictures of both of those, but I didn’t have to worry, because another 20 minutes later we’d get a closeup of what we had come to see. Cars were stopping everywhere along the road to the point that it was impossible to pass, however, nobody got upset or honked their horns, everybody just stopped and got out of their cars as well. When we got out and wandered to where the bulk of the crowd was mulling around, we were greeted by what people were saying was a large grizzly bear nearby, close enough to see properly, but still at a safe distance. It was just walking around, eating, completely unperturbed by the mass of people taking photos and filming its every move. I managed to get some decent photos of it, as well as video, before getting back into the car so we could enjoy our final night at the hotel, spotting another black bear in the distance along the way.
This was the reason we had come on this holiday, to see creatures like these:

We arrived back at the hotel and there was book in the bar that looked like a guestbook, but you filled in the date, the animals you had seen, and where. Some dumbasses had actually used it as a guest book, despite the other entries saying things such as “July 3 2019 ¦ deer ¦ at the river” or “7/13/19 ¦ 3 marmots ¦ Storm Point,” they had written something to the extent of “7/11/19 ¦ Tommy & Julie Cox ¦ Wilmington, N.C.” That’s a real example, by the way. I took the opportunity to write in the book and although I could have written about the multitude of deer, bison, and bears we had seen that day, I took the low road and wrote “July 14, 2019 ¦ Flys & Mosquitoes ¦ Everywhere!!!”

We had dinner in the restaurant and then went to the bar early to enjoy our last night in Wyoming, drinking with some fellow guests at the hotel and that is where we heard a sentence that perfectly encapsulated this part of America; in reference to Amazon Prime:

Woman at the bar: “Tomorrow is Prime Day, so if you can find internet…”

We honestly thought the kid that was legally allowed to drive in this country learning about dairy products from his ashamed father was going to be the greatest thing we would hear that day, but it turns out we were wrong.

Monday, July 15, 2019
Our time in Wyoming and Montana had come to an end and we now had to embark on a gruelling journey home — We needed to drive to Yellowstone Airport, catch a one-hour flight to Salt Lake City, Utah, transfer to another one-hour flight to Los Angeles, sit through a six-hour layover, and then catch a 17-hour flight back to Singapore. It was going to suck, but we made a couple of interesting sitings along the way; first, there were a lot of Amish-looking people in the lobby of the hotel as we were checking out (I realise the Amish are generally in the east, but there is no other way to describe these people), and then we would pass a herd of bucks grazing next to a river on the way to the airport.
Once we arrived at the airport we realised our hotel was bigger than where we were flying out from! Seriously, this thing was tiny.
A few final shots from this trip to the US:

Anna took the car keys to the rental shed and then we checked into our flight. We started to make our way over to the only place to eat in the airport when I saw a sign warning about carrying bear spray in your luggage, both check-in and carry-on. I quickly went back and informed them that there was bear spray in my check-in luggage so they grabbed my suitcase and got me to remove the spray so it could be disposed of before my luggage was put on the plane. If I hadn’t removed it, my luggage probably would’ve been taken away and destroyed. At least they let me keep the holster for the spray, I might use it for carrying deodorant on those really humid days back here in Singapore.
The flight to Salt Lake City was fine, but the one out of there was awful; it was a tiny plane and we had a really bumpy take off that made everyone feel sick, followed by constant turbulence. We killed time in LAX by shopping, I managed to pick up this awesome Donald Trump colouring book, and then just kicked back in the lounge, eating free food and drinking free booze. Once aboard the flight, we both tried to stay awake as long as possible so the jet-lag wouldn’t hit us quite as badly, Anna by watching movies and me by playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on my phone, but to no avail. The jet-lag was just as bad, if not worse when we arrived home.

By visiting Montana and Wyoming we both saw a part of the United States that we never thought we would and eventually encountered a lot of fantastic animals in their natural environment. But if I learnt one thing on this trip it was this — The only way to see bears in the wild is to forget your bear spray.

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