Sitting on the shores of an alpine lake, just into Montana, was where I saw that big bear print. Apparently they are more dangerous around elk season, when they come in for the gut piles. So I am reliably informed by a mustachioed gentleman packing enough heat to take down a small comet, let alone an animal. "I've never seen one round here", says Rambo, "but I always carry a firearm, just in case". In the background, his wife snorts an enormous clod of snot and fires it off into the woods. With that kind of firepower, I wonder why he needs the gun at all. Along the shoreline, his two skinny, pale, bespectacled boys are fishing for small trout, getting terribly excited, and terribly sunburnt I presume - they are only wearing jeans and baseball caps. The walk back down to the campsite is three miles of high altitude mountain trail, burnt out several years ago, though wild raspberries are dotted along in patches, which makes the activity far more bearable. No pun there, so don't look for one.
Leaving Montana, and its bear-infested campsites (though we've yet to see one, so there are rumours of it being a big ruse, especially given the no-show after a very smelly salmon pie last night), we pass over the Beartooth mountains at 11,000 feet, pockets of snow and the occasional wolly marmot indicating that we are very high indeed. It is all downhill after this. One of the group is nauseous, probably because of the cumulative effects of dehydration, lack of sleep, altitude, desert hiking, followed by mountain hiking, heat, cold, and bear-related worry. Then the road into our campsite in Yellowstone is closed, meaning a two hour drive around the loop, punctuated by elongated stops for jay-walking bison and the rubber-neckers who have only seen a few hundred and are yet to become as outrageously complacent as we are.
It's not as if there is actually that much wildlife in the park, or America at all. We've only seen some bison, about ten elk, six sheep, a coyote and three crows. The absence of birdsong in the states is remarkable, whether in deciduous or coniferous woods. It's hard to work out what Yellowstone is: wildlife preserve, reserve, recreation ground, geological experiment or wilderness. It's all and none of the above and I'm not sure it really works. A well-paved highway with occasional bison crossing the path of innumerable Harley Davidsons, campsites where the hum of occasional ten tonne RVs has replaced wolves, or watering holes where people paddle in hot springs, or walk their dogs over elk tracks.
The geysers are undeniably beautiful and impressive, as is the wildlife when it does get stumbled upon, but it doesn't feel wild until you push far, far into an isolated trail. There is no traffic cap, you can walk anywhere, you can fish in most places and outside Old Faithful is a four lane highway. I had a great time in the hot springs, why keep anyone from an area like this, the idea of a national park is a park for all 250-odd million US citizens, but how much of it can be exploited? Coming out of the long-drop toilets an elderly woman remarked to me that "It's not the Ritz Carlton". Of course not, and I should bloody hope that it stays that way, but it is easy to get the sense that with such great, real wilderness areas as the Beartooths, Yellowstone is being used so that America's true wilderness can remain wild, while old ladies in massive RVs can say they slept near some wolves and took a pee in the woods.