Expect unexpected when vacationing

Ah, the sweet unpredictability of vacation.

Since the beginning of time ? and perhaps best told in ?National Lampoon?s Vacation? ? man has often tried to arduously plan trips, only for these ?bulletproof? plans to promptly blow up in our faces time and time again.

I haven?t been immune to such Clark Griswold-ian blow-ups. From myself crashing on an alpine slide to my sister being chased by a mountain goat, vacations have given me some of my craziest (and in my sister?s case, funniest) memories.

I don?t have an insane or hilarious story after vacationing to Yellowstone National Park two weeks ago, but in typical vacation fashion almost none of it went as planned.

It was a trip I had outlined for about one month. I poured over the details like Bridezillas plan their weddings and hoped not one second of the vacation would go to waste. Because the trip was the first major one I had ever planned myself, I was determined that it be foolproof.

Right from the start my hard work didn?t seem to matter to the vacation gods, however. When we took off that very first morning, my friend Chad complained of being sick. His stomach felt queasy all day long, but the queasiness soon progressed into hacking-up-a-lung stuff on day two.

Fast forwarding through a lot of the unpleasantries, the third day arrived and he was still so sick that we decided to head back home before even reaching Yellowstone. From Rapid City, S.D., we only drove about 60 miles back toward Iowa when Chad convinced me he was feeling better. Keeping my fingers crossed, I turned around and again drove west.

Crossing fingers only made things worse, it seemed. Although we got to Yellowstone with little incident, Chad continued to feel sicker from there. At the lowest point on the trip, he went almost two days without holding any food or water down.

On day four, Chad began to feel so bad that I practically dragged him to a clinic in West Yellowstone, Montana, where he got IV fluids pumped into his arm. The IV happened to do the trick, but they never could pinpoint why exactly he was sick in the first place. (Since returning from the trip he hasn?t felt sick once. Go figure.)

We then camped a few nights in places where bears, buffalo and other furry beasts were the least of our worries. That honor goes to the mosquitoes, which seemed to be DEET-resistant mutants. Even two weeks later I?m reminded of their insane persistence ? a few battle scars remain on my arms and legs. A Uinta ground squirrel couple that burrowed next to my tent for a few days caused its share of chaos, as well. From scurrying back and forth past my tent in the middle of the night to attempting to steal my socks, their actions kept me busy in a ?National Lampoon?s? sort of way.

Then, with the mosquitoes, squirrels and Chad?s sickness safely behind us, I threw my plans out the window. Plans were overrated, I decided, and I no longer had time on my side.

It turned out to be the best decision of my trip. Like on past vacations, some of my favorite moments were thanks to impromptu choices, from encountering carefree buffalo in the middle of the road (does car insurance cover a buffalo horning?), to fishing in one of the park?s many streams. We also explored many of Yellowstone?s sights, including Pelican Valley Trail known for its bear activity.

My Yellowstone travel book described the trail as ?an area north of the lake loaded with sandhill cranes, trout, eagles, grizzly, and the new kids on the block, wolves.? Online, the trail has been called ?some of the best Grizzly country in the lower 48 [states].? It has a section known as ?bear meadows? and doesn?t open each summer until July 4 due to bear activity. And even though Yellowstone?s grizzlies have been making the news lately for their aggressive ways, I found solace in the fact that most people return from hikes with all their limbs intact.

Arriving at Pelican Valley, we saw the trail?s sign had far more warnings than the average Yellowstone trail. Anyone who has visited Yellowstone knows most trails warn hikers they are in bear country and to be ?bear aware,? but this was something else entirely. The sign was two times bigger than others I?d seen, likely so all the warnings could fit. The sign warned to travel in a party of at least four and to only hike there from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., among other warnings.

My only form of ?protection? was a dull hatchet in one hand and bear pepper spray in the other. (Looking back on it I?m not sure who I was trying to scare away, the animals or other hikers.)

The trail began in a grassy valley with mountain peaks off in the distance. It was really the first serene experience of my trip, which up until that point included way too much traffic and dry heaving. The area was tranquil enough to make me forget just 20 miles to the west hundreds of people were convening around Old Faithful geyser.

Not more than 100 yards in we encountered our first animal ? a buffalo that was lying awake in the middle of the trail. Quietly, we tiptoed past him, hoping we caught the bison on a good day. A few times during the detour I thought I would have to summon my high school cross country skills when the bison looked my direction, but he was apparently more interested in getting a suntan than charging idiot humans.

A little farther up the trail, we saw what I assumed to be a large pile of bear pooh, part of an elk carcass and shreds of a large mushroom. Both the mushroom and carcass looked like they had been torn into by a very large animal. Admittedly, my stomach nervously churned at that point, but we pressed onward anyway. Soon we ran into our first hiker, a grizzeled man in his 40s who was lugging a backpack almost as tall as his body.

The first words out of his mouth were, ?Don?t plan on continuing much further, do you??

What a vote of confidence, I thought.

The man proceeded to tell us there were four bears up ahead: a mother grizzly and her son, as well as two male adult grizzlies a little beyond that. He didn?t depart without shaking me a little more, saying, ?Travel at your own risk.?

I had to make a decision: Do I continue onward and ignore a bagful of red flags and possibly have an exciting column for The Ledger, or do I turn back and find the safety of the car?

I chose the latter.

I?ll admit I have a little regret about turning around when I did, but the trail still made for a few memorable moments. And I lived to tell them.

Andy Rooney once said, ?The best thing about a vacation is planning it.? Sorry, Mr. Rooney, I get the joke but have to disagree. After this trip I believe the WORST thing about a vacation is planning the journey. The best parts are the ones you never expect (sicknesses excluded), even if you can?t make a ?National Lampoon?s? movie out of any of it.


Michael Leach is Ledger lifestyles editor.