Bubbling mud. Booming caverns. Rising steam. Old Faithful. Locked restrooms. Such were the five memorable days I spent with my son Matt last week at Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks as COVID-19 lurked nearby.
I hadn’t seen Matt since Christmas. Due to COVID, he’d been practically barricaded in his Los Angeles apartment since March. Due to COVID, he’s skittish about flying, so we each drove. We rendezvoused in Jackson and set out to explore the Tetons.
We gasped at the beauty, at the shimmering lakes, snow-frosted peaks. We saw elk, moose, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and a mama grizzly and four cubs. There was just one flaw: Most park restrooms were closed.
You can visit a park without buying a postcard, but you can’t defy Mother Nature. Men can dash behind a tree, but we women can’t. This is a dilemma the COVID-19 warnings on the national park websites don’t mention.
After a couple of hours, we both had to go.
We searched for open restrooms. We’d used the one in the visitor center near Moose when we entered the park, but that was miles back. Finally, we turned into Jackson Lake Lodge. The lodge was locked up tight, but we spotted one single wooden unisex restroom beyond the parking lot, so we headed over and encountered a string of 10 people lined up at that restroom like itchy shoppers outside Target on Thanksgiving night.
It was cold and windy, but we got in line. That wait gobbled up 30 minutes.
We didn’t go to Wyoming to stand in lines, so as we drove, we began to stake out latrines. Out-of-the-way latrines, the ones at empty picnic areas, ones standing forlornly along the road, even the one buried under pines behind the park’s 90-year-old log chapel. Some scenic stops had latrines; others did not.
We pulled into a gas station at Colter Bay, figuring it would have a toilet, but its bathroom was locked tight. Yet, we found an open latrine near the big sign at the park’s northern entrance. I got in line behind a man from San Antonio.
During the next three days, we began to watch for bathrooms like we watched for elk and buffalo.
Friday, we headed north to Yellowstone and resumed our great latrine hunt. At Old Faithful, where hundreds of mostly unmasked people waited for the eruption, both the Old Faithful Inn and the Old Faithful Lodge were closed and locked. One single restroom building was open. After Old Faithful blew its top, the lines at that restroom strung out longer than the Lincoln Highway. We refused to wait.
Heading back to the car, my son spied a forlorn little outhouse hidden under lodgepole pines on the other side of the parking lot. He hurried over. He was in luck. It was unlocked.
COVID-19 was erupting all over the park, a park employee had told me. The general store at Old Faithful (without restrooms) was open, but long lines hovered outside there, too, because only 15 customers were allowed in at once.
West Thumb Geyser Basin had four unisex-outdoor restrooms clustered in its parking lot, all with long lines. I chose the one with the shortest line, but a young mother took her two preschoolers in ahead of me. I waited for 20 minutes.
Unexpectedly, an hour’s drive north, we found open bathrooms and gift shops at Mammoth Hot Springs on the park’s northwestern edge. We also found, unexpectedly, an open restaurant (take-out only), a gift shop and warm bathrooms at Canyon Village in the park’s center, but knowing restaurants were closed, we’d packed sandwiches. When it spit snow Saturday, we ate in the car.
We respected COVID-19 the way we respected grizzlies. Like most park visitors, we wore masks as we hiked. But when we stumbled into West Yellowstone, Montana, Saturday night, we found people crammed shoulder to shoulder in noisy pubs and bars. We shuddered. COVID-19 could erupt like Old Faithful in those places. We heated frozen dinners in our motel’s microwave instead.
Our trip was unforgettable, but next time, we’ll pinpoint latrine locations before we go.
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