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camping with grizzly bears is scarier than hitchhiking

There I was, leaning against the wall of the Grant Village Campground bathroom, mechanically shoveling warm oatmeal into my mouth, absently re-reading the campground recycling guidelines for the thirty-seventh time.  Rain hammered on the roof and dripped noisily off the gutters onto the pavement outside.  The bathroom was the only place where I could cook and consume breakfast and stay relatively dry.  Glass bottles: please rinse and discard lids. I sighed, and swallowed another thick lump of oats and raisins.  After a week of sunshine in the Grand Teton National Park, my good-weather karma had run out.  I rode into Yellowstone Park under a black storm cloud, and for three days following, lived out of a wet backpack and an even wetter tent.  Oh, how I miss the warm, solid huts of New Zealand!

Two weeks I had, between the Teton mountains and the unique thermal and wilderness attractions of Yellowstone.  On my own, without a car, I became dependent on the kindness of strangers.  Initially, I had my doubts.  Are Americans willing to trust?  Are they capable of being open-minded and generous?  Or are hitchhikers a species extinct – killed off by the culture of suspicion and distrust that is growing steadily in our country?  Standing at trail heads with my thumb raised high, I saw confusion, shock, discomfort.  I watched the faces driving past, some looking resolutely ahead, ignoring me, others staring unabashedly, mouths open in disbelief.  What is she doing?! I never had to wait long, though, and in each case the individuals who stopped to offer me a lift were friendly, helpful, and full of concerned goodwill.  Each of them (I caught perhaps fifteen separate rides, anywhere from two miles to eighty) expressed admiration colored heavily with concern.  “You’re pretty gutsy…but jeez, girl, you gotta watch out for those weirdos!  Aren’t you worried?  Aren’t you afraid?” asked Paul the insurance investigator.  Some, like the three old friends on their way to a funeral, told me stories of when they were my age and hitched across the whole west, from national park to park.  “But people aren’t like they used to be – be careful!”  Some were hesitant.  Three thirty-something surgeons from Texas, in Jackson for a conference, told me they would never pick up a hitchhiker, normally.  Others were excited for me.  Jason, a Gulf War vet, on vacation with his seven-year-old son, wished he could be doing what I was.  “It’s so great to meet a true adventurer!  That deserves a ride.”  Some only wanted company.  The emphysemic painter from Las Vegas was almost too wrapped up in his own affairs to ask where I wanted to be dropped off before launching into his life story.  I found it interesting that those who were open-minded enough to pick me up, still maintained a sort of blanket distrust of other people – as if they were the sole safe bet in a world full of serial killers.  Are we too large, as a country?  Are we all strangers to one another, and therefore incapable of trust?  Even I, open-minded world traveler, began in a cynical state of mind.  Not that I was fearful, but that I doubted whether my fellow Americans would be willing to lend a helping hand.  I was reassured, my faith in humanity – Americans specifically – restored, recharged.  I needed help, and got it – over and over again.

Beyond the hitchhiking, there were a few notable encounters with folks interesting, generous, and fun…

There was Jan, the German cyclist, whom I talked into joining me for a spectacular day hike in the Tetons.  Hooray for someone young!  Someone my own age!

Then there was Steve, the Hollywood paparazzi photographer.  When not taking pictures of Brittney Spears shaving her head in a barber shop (oh, yes, that was him), he volunteers as the campground manager at the Mammoth Campground, which is where I met him.  He watched me set up my tent in the freezing rain (this was the evening of the morning during which I was eating oatmeal in the bathroom) before approaching me, shyly.  “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.  I’m not trying to hit on you, but I do have a pull out couch in my RV that you’re welcome to have, if you want it…I have two daughters about your age, and, well, I’d like to know that someone would take care of them, too.”  So, for two glorious nights I had a warm, dry, soft bed and a roof over my head, and a flat screen TV with surround sound to watch movies on.  Thank you, Steve!

Calvin from Colorado and Mike from Texas (both in the area for business, both killing time in Yellowstone, both bored with eating and sightseeing alone) picked me up, and not only drove me to where I wanted to go, but took me through some scenic detours (The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Dunraven Pass, Gibbon Falls) that I wouldn’t have gotten to see from the main roads.  And they both treated me to dinner at my final destination.

Finally, there were Bob, Roger, Paige, and Morgan, a Mormon family (grandfather, son, grandkids).  I was in southeastern Yellowstone, near Heart Lake, when they came riding up (they were on a pack trip with horses) and informed me that the campsite I was heading towards was currently being inhabited…by a 700-pound, silver-backed grizzly bear.  It was late – the sun had already set, and it was at least three miles back to a safer campsite.  This was my last night before heading back to Jackson, and home, and I was not feeling at all brave about trying to camp within sniffing distance of a grizzly.  Roger and Bob saw my fear and indecision, and immediately took me under their wings.  I spent my last night in their camp, listening to the horses grazing outside my tent, and feeling hugely grateful to have some human companionship.  Yellowstone is big, and it is wild, and though normally I love the solitude of these solo overnight trips, during these two weeks I found myself craving other people.  It is incredibly nerve-wracking to hike alone in bear country.  Just knowing that Roger and family were in their own tent next door, within shouting distance, was an enormous relief.  I woke up (after the best night’s sleep in weeks) to a cold mix of snow, rain, and wind.  Winter comes early to Yellowstone.  Roger offered to ride with me halfway out of the park, to get me past the grizzly (who was still rooting away in the field where he’d been the night before, a mere thirty feet from the trail) and to save me some foot-slogging in the rain.  So it was, after two weeks of walking, climbing, hitchhiking, and camping, I rode out of Yellowstone in the snow, on the back of a big, red, Tennesee Walker named Hillary (after Hillary Clinton).

And now – the Idaho Falls Regional Airport.  Small, but newly renovated, and with wireless internet access!  Oh, the joys of having a laptop.  Five more hours to go before I’m in Boise with the incomparable K. Blank – four more days to go before I’m back home.  See you soon!

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