An air of misery overwhelms the car. We’ve driven to the end of the Lamar Valley — supposedly the best place in Yellowstone National Park for wildlife-spotting — and we still haven’t seen a bear. After this latest fruitless detour, we’re faced with a disconsolate 90-minute drive in the dark back to the hotel.
Over the course of a week in Wyoming, the search for a bear — any bear — has become increasingly desperate. We didn’t see any on the first day in the Grand Teton National Park, so decided to go with the professionals on the second day. Surely a wildlife tour that goes out every evening will know where the animals hang out?
This turned out to be true for moose. One had parked itself on an island in the middle of the Snake River and looked very happy, thank you very much. Huge herds of bison, roaming elk and watchful birds of prey also duly showed their faces. But despite staying out an hour later than planned, and kerb-crawling along the bumpy forest tracks where they were supposedly to be found, the bears had gone AWOL.
When squinting in near darkness, it’s amazing how many things look like bears. Tree stumps grow paws and faces, large rocks appear positively ursine. Every few minutes, a cry of glorious certainty would go up, “There’s one at 11 o’clock!” — only to be replaced with embarrassed apologies when Yogi turned out to be a shrub.
After the failure of the wildlife tour, it was time for a new strategy. If bears are most active at dawn, then we would be too. Coffee-sustained early morning drives became standard practice. This, it turns out, is an excellent strategy for spotting motorists parked by the roadside who’d tell you there was a bear — five minutes ago.
The tragedy of wildlife tourism is that it becomes ridiculously tunnel-visioned. On these pre-breakfast drives, we were seeing things that would have gladdened the heart of any sane animal-lover. The bison gambolling across the road, sometimes with the calf stopping to suckle its mother, were incredible by any legitimate measure. So too the moose pausing by the river to munch on the willow trees. But after a few days, any animal that is not a bear became little more than a crushing disappointment.
The same applies on other wildlife adventures. The quickest way to develop a hatred of dolphins is to go on a whale-watching tour where the dolphins are a constant presence, and the desired humpbacks prove elusive.
Similarly, on an African safari, a blasé attitude towards zebras and giraffes develops extraordinarily quickly. And once you’ve set your mind on seeing a lion, every rhino or elephant that appears becomes a time-wasting nuisance.
In the Lamar Valley, heartbroken resignation sets in. We turn for home in stony, dispirited silence. And then the thunder booms overhead. The drive back is going to be dangerous as well as depressing, as the rain starts falling in thick sheets. We can barely see two metres in front of us, let alone any wildlife.
We have to pull over to let the worst of it pass. “What’s that?” comes the excited cry from the passenger seat.
I glance over, “It’s a rock. Another bloody rock.”
“No. Not that — over there.”
“A bison.” Haven’t we seen enough bison?
It dawns on us simultaneously. We turn to each other and scream in harmony, “A bear! IT’S A BEAR!” Suddenly unperturbed by the rain, I wind down the window, letting the equivalent of approximately three oceans pour into the car. It’s all worth it for the world’s most hopelessly awful photograph of a bear.
It has a remarkably transformative effect on the journey back. We’re reduced to simpleton grins and endless child-like declarations of, “We saw a bear. We saw a bear.” It’s fairy dust-sprinkled delight. The lack of sleep and increasingly outlandish diversions were finally worth it.
The next morning, we hurry towards the airport. Twenty minutes into the drive, in what can only be calculated mockery, a black bear saunters out by the roadside to our left.
Rule one of wildlife tourism: Stop looking for something, and you’ll probably find it straight away.
Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)