By Anna Gentry
My first trip to Yellowstone National Park was 22 years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. My parents’ Subaru piled high with suitcases and coolers was far too reminiscent of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
The night before we left my dad was struggling to pack his fly-fishing gear. Yellowstone was, after all, the land of plenty. My dad, the avid angler had never taken us on a “vacation,” because it was always a fishcation. Finally, without any room to give and the tire pressure ready to burst, he had to admit defeat and leave his rod, tackle box and waders at home. The middle seat in the back was valuable car square footage for our dog, Sophie, whom we failed to secure a dog sitter for, as my dad is a fan of last minute trips.
My dad decides to run down to the local camera store, when such a thing existed, and purchases a $600 camera. (If anyone is wondering, inflation is over 60-percent.) It comes with a VHS instructional video and my mom urges my dad to watch it, but he is insistent he will bring 35 rolls of film instead.
The next morning we leave. My dad has the entire trip planned, down to restroom stops, gas fill-up breaks, where we are staying, cooler cold cuts we are eating and when we are departing each morning. From Washington State into Idaho and Montana we venture, arriving through the North Entrance into Yellowstone.
My mom is an amazing navigator. A stack of books at her feet, she reads off facts, citing upcoming sights that are just around the bend. (Those were back in the days when I got carsick reading and here all these years later, I am now the navigator and my mom was right: age does cure reading in the car.)
We see our first antelope and we screech with joy. We have never seen an antelope. I grew up with an ancient set of encyclopedias my dad’s parents bought the year after he was born, circa 1951. I remember seeing black and white pictures of antelope in the books and in the library. I did not grow up with the Internet, as Al Gore got a late start on that in my early college years.
We then see another antelope, and another, and another and then an entire herd. Soon antelope grow tediously boring and my attention span wanes. I have seen enough antelope. I want to move along to something bigger and better.
My dad continues making stops, hunting animals for close-ups and swearing under his breath that his fancy new camera is not any better than his trusty 35MM. Meanwhile, I am in charge of the video camera. I am sure it weighs more than my entire teenage right arm.
My mom offers to drive, for which I am forever grateful. My dad is far too busy looking for wildlife and his driving is reminiscent of Chevy Chase’s when he sees Christy Brinkley on their way to Wally World. In fact, my brother and our dog are both feeling as nauseous as I am.
We run into our first Yellowstone traffic jam. I recover from teetering on the edge of queasiness to see a bison alongside the road. My brother and I are excited it is not an antelope. And then it happens. My dad rolls down his window and a park ranger comes over. “Excuse me sir, you may want to stay in your car. There’s a grizzly 35 feet from this area.”
I cannot see the grizzly, but my heart leaps into my throat. I want to see an animal that is both dangerous and beautiful. My dad waits for the park ranger to visit several more cars behind us and he slips out of the car to take pictures with his camera. He has since dubbed the contraption “the expensive 35MM that does not zoom.”
I slide out of the car amidst all the commotion my dad causes by not listening to the park ranger or my mom. It was at that moment I see the grizzly and I make slight eye contact. Everything else around me is a ghost-like fog. The grizzly is clear, his stride highlights his strawberry blonde coat and fearsome bulldog like stance. He makes roaring growls as he walks, announcing he is not happy about having an audience in his once peaceful meadow. I feel as though I am a stone statue and cannot move. I suddenly experience the force of my dad and the park ranger ripping my feet from the ground and forcing me in the car. My moment connecting with this peaceful grizzly is taken, but it is one I remember and cherish forever.
Anna Gentry has visited Yellowstone National Park three times over the last two decades. She has also visited Hebgen Lake and stayed in Yellowstone campgrounds.