Of Nature, Respect, and The Stupid.

My plan had been to write a companion piece to last year’s Research Road Trip for SILVER ON THE ROAD, this time talking about the five days I spent in Wyoming doing research for book #2, THE COLD EYE.

Instead, I want to talk to you about nature, respect, and most of all, The Stupid.

The weeks before we loaded the car and headed east (and I still freak out that Wyoming is now EAST of me, but that’s another story), there were several news articles about tourists being seriously hurt by wildlife in Yellowstone and other national parks.  It’s not a common thing, but it’s not rare, either.  Animals are wild, people are occasionally overwhelmed by proximity to wild, and Things Happen.  So when we decided that yes, we were going to be hiking into Shoshone National Forest, I decided that I’d spent the money and buy a can of bear spray.  Did I think we were going to encounter a Grizzly or Black bear on our five hour hike?  No, I didn’t.

Did I think that there was a risk?  Honestly…no.

Did I think that it was stupid to play those odds with bears in the springtime?  Yes.

This, I thought was basic survival shit: don’t try to get yourself into trouble.

Spoiler: we didn’t see a bear on our hike, or when we went out riding.  But that doesn’t meant they weren’t there, avoiding us.


Ignore the scat on the trail, you’re completely alone out here…

As an aside: when you read THE COLD EYE, think of me, pausing every ten minutes to go “oh shit, I got that wrong, I need to rewrite this scene, remind me to add this to the description….”  Huzzah for fact-checking things in person.

Fast forward a day or two, and we’re in Yellowstone National Park.  The checklist of animals sighted is filling up – from the smaller rodents to elk, to the Majestic Moose.

And bear.  Not many bear – one grizzly for certain, another possibly-not-confirmed, but grizzly, man.  A grizzly…

And bison.  A lot of bison.  Or, as we incorrectly but consistently call them, American buffalo.  Bison are freaking everywhere.

Now, bison play an important role in the Devil’s West, just as they did on our actual history.  So you have to understand that these are not tasty hamburgers on the hoof, or cuddly plushies (although I do love my plushie)  Bison weigh up to 2000 pounds. Each. And can run up to 35 mph.  And can pivot and turn faster than you really want to think about.

The Native tribes respected these bastards. You want to respect these bastards. That means respecting the Park Guidelines (100 yard/300 feet safety zone for bear, 25 yards/75 feet minimum for pretty much everything else).  For the record, this is not difficult.  Even a mediocre camera can get a good shot at 25 yards, and if you’re hauling out to Yellowstone, you probably should shell out for a slightly-more-than-meh camera.  But I digress.

When we spotted the grizzly, most people were keeping well outside the hundred (FIVE hundred) yard range.  Except one guy who – his camera to his eye – was creeping forward slowly…slowly…slowly…. Until the grizzly stood on his hind legs and LOOKED to see what it was that was coming closer to him, and if it was a threat (or tasty).

(photo not mine.)

photo not mine c. Ian McAllister/NatGeo http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2011/08/08/living-with-spirit-bears-great-bear-rainforest/6-_imc7926/Everyone watching from the safety of the road let out a variation of “oh fuck.”

We couldn’t hear what the photographer said, but even at five hundred yards, his body language translated to something along the lines of “oh.  Oh dear I’m terribly sorry, don’t mind me, I’ll just take myself off and bother someone else…”  as he crabwalked backward until the bear dropped back to four legs and went back to whatever bearish thing he was doing.

And I thought that would be the stupidest thing we saw in the Park.  Oh.  My optimism, let me show you it.
Because as we are driving along, we come across a bison.  A single, solitary bison, away from their herd, hooves on the road, watching the traffic.  Which, okay, yeah.  Bison, like chicken, do cross the road.

But this one?  Had attracted the attention of a Homo Stupidius.  You can’t see her in this photo, but she is FIVE FEET AWAY from the bison’s nose, OUT OF HER CAR, taking photos.

Five feet.  That’s less than the length of one person.  In front of an animal that can bolt without warning, and hit ramming speed before you can blink.  That can hit you with the force of a small car, if a small car also happened to be equipped with a pair of sharp horns.



don’t mind us, sir, we’re moving along now..


I can’t write characters that stupid.  I swear to god, I can’t.




About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Of Nature, Respect, and The Stupid. — 13 Comments

  1. But this one? Had attracted the attention of a Homo Stupidius. You can’t see her in this photo, but she is FIVE FEET AWAY from the bison’s nose, OUT OF HER CAR, taking photos.

    Oh dear. Homo stupidus is lucky she didn’t get gored. Bison can be pugnacious if annoyed.

    Last time I was anywhere near that close to a Bison, my friend and I ducked into a bathroom to get out of the way.

    • In our car, I felt reasonably safe even when the herd was crossing the road a foot from our bumper – we stopped when they moved, and moved (slowly!) when they’d stopped, and in general behaved as one would at a school-zone crosswalk.

      Without the protection of the car’s frame and bulk? Yeah, I’ll keep my distance and admire from afar. I’m okay with that.

      • My late friend’s brother, though, got chased on a snowmobile by a Bison who thought “Chase the snowmobile” was a new, fun winter sport…

        • Heh. I was thinking about snowmobiling when I read this. The only time I’ve ever been on a snowmobile, on a trip in Yellowstone in February some years ago, I rounded a curve and met a bison walking toward me down what would have been the center line of a 2-lane road if it hadn’t been covered with snow. I pulled as far to the edge of the road as I could (not as far as I would have liked, but there was an embankment) and stopped, hoping that if he turned my direction I could bail into the woods and leave him the machine. He ambled on by without paying me much attention, which suited me just fine. It was the closest I expect to ever come to an encounter with an alien.

          I wish I had a picture, but it was long before cell phones, my camera was in my pack, and I’m not sure I could have pried my fingers off the handlebars anyway.

  2. Years ago I ghost-wrote a book about Heroic Game Wardens and their antics, and one of the things I learned about is something called “Disneyland Syndrome.” Which says that some people have a deep, abiding faith that Nature is all an audio-animatronic™ display put on for their amusement. They will go right up to an animal twice their size, equipped with teeth and claws, in the blithe assumption that it’s all benign. Enter tragedy; exit moron, pursued by, well…

    Me, I’m such a city girl that my belief is that all of Nature has a Madeleine-sized space on its wall, and waits only to stuff and mount my head as one more trophy. It may be paranoid, but it keeps me from too much Stupid.

    • I was raised in the country and figure animals aren’t out to get you as long as you give them their space and don’t do things that make them uncomfortable. Such as get too close to the wild ones or walk right behind a horse (in kicking range) or do much of anything around a bull.

      But human beings are even stupid around other human beings, so I don’t suppose it’s surprising that a lot of them don’t understand the dangers of wild animals.

  3. I met a tiny days-old bison on a friend’s farm. A cute little fellow who gummed my knees. Wet jeans! But I also have the memory of traveling with my family through Custer State Park, in the rain, hadn’t seen any sign of the 400+ bison roaming the park. Dad said, “Well, looks like we won’t see any bison.” We drove around the corner…into the herd.

    Dad said “No one tap on the windows.”

    Not a chance. They were larger than the station wagon we were in. Looking out at a huge bison head through rain-smeared glass, just waiting for them to move on….

    I think the stupid ones mostly died before adulthood. Or viewed the West through paintings brought back to the East.

  4. There’s a commercial herd of bison about five miles from my house. Amazing critters. They also are prized by cutting and reined cowhorse trainers because they make aspiring competitive horses work hard, and they don’t sour on the work like cattle can. Plus all the training accounts I’ve read suggest that the more competitive cowhorses get really excited about working bison. But that’s different from the crazy fools who don’t grok wildlife that can kill you.

  5. My parents, in Yellowstone, saw people posing their children for photos under a tree with a bear cub in it.

    They also heard of a man who beat your woman — he actually went and touched the bison. Didn’t make it.

    It’s a good thing you can’t write ’em, because who on earth would want to read about such dolts?

  6. Last time I was in Glacier National Park in Montana, we stopped at one of the campgrounds. Got out to check in a the ranger station, got about ten feet when, … there’s a bear. Hardtop pickup, me, bear, in a perfect isosceles triangle. I’ve never backed up so slowly, and never thrown myself so fast into the back of a truck. We lay there for a while as he climbed all over the truck, then drove around warning people.

    Obviously a shame that the bear had become so accustomed to finding food near humans, but at the time, the food = human link was all too evident.

    • Yeah – even in the suburbs I see people blithely feeding wild animals and I think “that is SUCH a bad idea.” I’ve had raccoon and squirrels break into my homes to get at human food (and garbage cans are fair game), so it’s not as though humans have no excuse when they go out into the wild, where things have larger claws…

      (hell, the metal food refuse bins at campsites should be warning enough. Even when we went on our hike, we locked our leftover food in there, rather than leaving it in the car, because bears can smell your bacon-and-eggs through Detroit’s finest….)