After my parents-in-law moved to Wyoming in 1971, it seemed only fitting and proper that Shirley and I visit them the following summer of 1972. Having never visited the Cowboy State and after listening to the glowing descriptions phoned back to us by my in-laws, we decided to see for ourselves this natural wonderland…never dreaming it would soon become our home for seventeen years. Wyoming conjures up images of rugged, hardy pioneers settling the wild, untamed west, and since we couldn’t ride in a covered wagon to the new land, we decided the next best option would be to travel by car and camp along the way, thus going more or less back to the basics which would allow us to really tune in with nature when the opportunity arose.
I had just purchased a 1971 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate station wagon, a behemoth of a vehicle powered by a 454 V8 that I learned on the trip would average 10.5 miles per gallon…and that was at a steady cruising speed before we hit the mountains. But it laughed at mountains, took the steepest incline without a complaint, and had room for all our camping gear. We bought an 8’x10’ standard tent, bedrolls, lantern, cooking utensils, hatchet, propane stove…you name it. By the time we pulled out of Baytown, we were self-sufficient and probably could have lived out of our car for a couple of weeks without ever approaching civilization.
We visited for several days, exploring the surrounding scenic beauty, but eventually we continued our traveling. Being as close as we were to Yellowstone National Park, it seemed only natural that we take in the entire ambiance of Wyoming and tour our nation’s first national park. We traveled west from Casper on Highway 26, and about 285 miles later found ourselves at the South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Actually, we had taken a short detour to Jackson Hole to marvel at this quaint western town and then retraced out steps to the entrance to Yellowstone.
There’s something exciting about entering Yellowstone. The incredible scenery with snowcapped mountains and the promise of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats, along with the official looking park rangers, all contribute to a feeling that something invigorating is about to happen. As we passed the ranger check station, we paid our park entrance fee and received all the park information, which along with all the obligatory maps and notations of scenic beauty, included a warning about feeding the wildlife. The opportunity to feed animals had not entered our minds, and we didn’t really think much about it. There was something in the brochure about keeping your food put away when camping, but we gave it only a passing glance. Our son, Bobby, who was five years old at the time, was all eyes, however, as he scanned the sides of the road for any kind of unusual wild animal.
The day was quickly slipping away, and upon locating a campground just north of the park entrance, we ducked in, found a spot, and set up camp for the night. By this time, we were pretty efficient in our camping techniques and within a few minutes the tent was up, cots and bedrolls ready, and supper was being prepared. To be honest, I have forgotten what we had for supper, but our normal evening meal when camping was sandwiches, or some kind of soup or chili. As the sun set and darkness fell, the evening became cool as it usually does in the mountains, and we stirred up a lovely campfire and enjoyed cups of coffee. By this time, Bobby was running out of gas and decided he was ready to hit the sack, so he crawled into his bedroll and was soon sound asleep.
In time the fire began to die out and Shirley and I decided to find our own bedrolls. You must remember that our tent was 8’ by 10’…with three beds packed inside there was not a lot of space. It was…um…cozy, but comfortable. Shirley, of course, cannot go to sleep without reading two to three books, whereas I go lights out when my head hits the pillow. So, the last thing I remembered was Shirley reading by lantern light as I drifted into a lovely sleep…until I woke up to someone banging me on the shoulder and saying in an excited whisper, “There’s something out there!” With my usual alertness, I rose and said, “Huh?” and Shirley repeated, “Something’s out by the picnic table!”
The “door” of the tent was drawn shut, but I cracked the fold of the tent just enough to peer out toward the picnic table…and saw it. The bear was black, about ten feet tall with yellow, vicious eyes, three-inch claws and fangs hanging out of his drooling mouth. Okay, okay…that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but at first glance, that’s how it appeared. The second thing I saw was our food box and ice chest sitting on the picnic table, and suddenly like a revelation, the warning from the Yellowstone brochure flashed like a large neon sign in my mind. “Make sure all food is placed in a secure area for the night!” In the ensuing few minutes the bear ate every scrap of food we had. The fact that it was wrapped in baggies or whatever made no difference. He used his claws to unzip every bag as cleanly as a teenage boy going through a refrigerator after school. The most amazing thing I saw was when he got to the Tupperware container of cold milk. This is the absolute, honest, saw-it-with-my-own-eyes truth…he put the half gallon container under his…er..arm (front leg?) and with the other paw used a claw to grasp the top and pop it off as smoothly as you ever saw in your life. Then with both hands (paws?) he raised the container to his lips and glub, glub, glub…drank the entire half gallon of milk. When he finished, he set the Tupperware container down, wiped his mouth, and continued to dig in the ice chest. If you don’t believe this story, I still have the Tupperware container with two claw punctures in the lid for your inspection.
During all this activity, we were sitting in our tent protected by a very thin sheet of canvas and trying to plan an escape. The table, our tent, and our car formed sort of a triangle, and we decided that our best escape would be to make a break for the car while the bear was occupied. At this point, silence was golden, and we were barely breathing. It was also then that I learned I had been too cheap in buying Bobby’s sleeping bag. Our two bags were heavy cloth and well insulated, but Bobby’s was made out of some kind of polyester and vinyl. When we tried to pull him out of his sleeping bag it sounded like we were crushing tin cans. We feared the noise would attract the bear, not to mention that at that same moment we realized there was coffee, sugar, and cream in the tent, and everybody knows that a bear can smell sugar at a distance of about three miles!
Then I realized…I have my gun! If I have to, I’ll….no, it wasn’t a very big caliber and will just enrage him. I decided to take another look at the bear…and he’s gone! Or at least he’s not at the table. Suddenly there were more shuffling sounds outside and they’re closer to us! I heard in the silence of the tent, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” and realized that my wife had repented of all her sins and rededicated her life to God four times over, so she was ahead of me since I was only on my third repentance. We continued to sit in panicked silence for what seemed an eternity. Suddenly with a loud scraping sound, the tent shuddered, and the bear brushed the sidewall of the tent nearest my head. The lantern rocked from its hanging position (long since turned off), and I don’t know if we screamed, yelled, or passed out silently, but we froze in horror, expecting the bear to rip open the wall at any moment.
We sat…and sat…and sat. Afraid to speak or even breathe. Slowly I peeked out the door again and saw no bear. Only darkness and silence. We probably sat as statues for the good part of thirty minutes. And then we heard the crash of a trash can…but it was away from us! Without a word we grabbed Bobby, ripped open the tent door, and ran for the safety of the car, piling in and slamming the doors. Only then did we begin to breathe but still shaking from our frightening experience. I’m not sure if we slept in the car, but we spent the rest of the night there anyway.
When the morning came, we surveyed the damage, and, other than the fact that we were foodless, we were in good shape. I picked up the now-empty Tupperware container and decided to keep it as a memento of a frightful time. Other campers mentioned that they had heard that there was a bear in camp last night, to which we agreed that, yes indeed there was. We spent the day touring Yellowstone, but we did no more camping. I don’t mind telling you, the thought of a repeat performance of that night did not appeal to any of us. We drove back to Casper to visit with the folks again, and we camped one night in Nebraska on the way home (far from the threat of bears). But since that last camping night in Nebraska, my family has never spent another night in a tent. Shirley made it clear that the only camping she would ever do in the future would be with a solid wall between her and nature. In all the years we lived in Wyoming, we always camped in a trailer or motorhome. One encounter with a bear was enough for us.