A trio of elk lumbered through Mammoth Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Drivers of dirt-caked cars and trucks hauling campers stopped short. Movement lower to the ground caught my attention.
Perhaps disturbed by the passing beasts, a small creature with a dark stripe on its back plodded out from the brush.
“That’s the strangest raccoon I’ve ever seen,” I announced to, well, Klaus and Grace the dogs. The friends who’d journeyed from California were ahead of me in the line, presumably watching the elk.
Camera on the floor of the passenger seat, I tried to take a picture with my phone, but ended up with a blur and part of my truck.
Not a racoon at all, I realized weeks later when the image popped into my mind and I did a bit of research. Rather a badger, a first for me.
Not too surprising, either. Though common in Yellowstone, badgers are more active at night than during the day.
In the campground we had fallen asleep each night to screaming elk. Each day hundreds of bison greeted us, some crossing streams and valleys in the distance, others a few feet from our moving vehicle. We were three of many who stopped to photograph a pronghorn that sure seemed to be posing, hanging around longer than most to admire the rare sighting.
We didn’t join the throng stopped to see a black bear in a tree but spotted it as we edged past stopped cars blocking a lane.
As time passes it is the image of the small, solitary badger that returns often to my mind.
In America’s most famous national park, visited by more than 4 million people every year, I felt grateful to share a fleeting, private moment with a reclusive animal.
Once the elk rubbernecking ended, we headed south through the heart of the park, much of it congested and slow until we reached the wild southern half that leads into Grand Teton National Park, our next stop.
Not a morning person, I’d gotten up early each day in Yellowstone to enjoy the scenery before the two-footed outnumbered the four. Watching night turn into day in the vast Lamar Valley more than justified one early wake-up.
Looking forward to sleeping in past dawn, I regretted mentioning Mormon Row to my friends over beers in claustrophobic Jackson Hole during our first night camping in Grand Teton.
Sent from Salt Lake City by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to establish new communities, Mormon homesteaders arrived in the 1890s in what became the southeast corner of a national park. The settlers clustered their farms, unlike most of the typical homesteaders in the West.
Today, Mormon Row comprises a group of dilapidated farmhouses, the most famous of which is featured as foreground for golden-hour shots of the Teton Range in photography lessons about lighting.
“That sounds amazing,” one friend said.
“We have to go,” her boyfriend added.
They stared at me. I sipped my beer.
He said it would be OK, we didn’t need to go. She replied yeah, but we might never be here again.
I took another sip.
He repeated that, really, it was OK.
“Wait. He’s trying to talk himself into it,” she said.
She was right, and I did.
The next morning arrived early, but unlike during a trip to the area years ago, I managed not to curse my alarm.
Cars lined the pre-dawn street when we pulled onto Mormon Row. Before joining the growing gaggle of sightseers facing west I looked east. A partially caved-in wood and wire post met the road. Trees formed a semi-circle around a lone farmhouse. The flat valley beyond gave way to rolling tree-lined peaks, a soft contrast to the ragged granite of the famed Teton Range on the other side.
I walked over, pulled my hands from my pockets, took off my gloves, breathed hot air onto my hands, and started snapping pictures. Temperatures close to freezing served as a reminder that our early September 2021 visit came mere weeks before parts of the park closed for the season.
My friend crossed the street.
“Wow, cool shot,” he said, taking out his camera. His girlfriend walked up and stood next to him.
We looked in the wrong direction for a few minutes before turning around and heading toward the group.
I maneuvered to a spot near the front of the pack. She hung back while he staked out a spot among trees near the edge of the property.
One early riser— convinced he would miss the best shot and his wife would never forgive him — joked to a man in the front with a tripod that he should take pictures for everybody and send them to the rest. His wife agreed and offered to give the man her email address, promising she wouldn’t sell them. Some halfhearted laughter, then silence.
The moment came, with the clicking of cameras and a few hushed gasps the only sounds.
Late-arriving visitors rushed over — many from idling cars — took pictures of the money shot and left. The early crew departed too, without looking the other way.
Lingering, we crossed the street again. To the east the low sun over the lower, less rugged, less photographed mountains painted the valley below.
We took a back road to our campground through a valley replete with bison. The soft morning light faded, exposing the hard edges of the western mountains.
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