The tone of his voice said it all, “Time to leave,” he shouted to the group. A black shroud draped over the stands of pine to the south. The Ranger didn’t need to tell us twice. The trail to the parking lot became a Chinese fire drill. Only the elderly and the infirm were left along the trail. A park ranger stood and directed traffic. The young female ranger was animated signaling those on the trail to move on. She was dressed in the traditional green-brown uniform and/or a brown smoky bear hat. Woven into her shouts of encouragement, she told the flocks of tourists that the fire was just an hour away.
The parking lot was a zoo; cars were flying in every direction. The single exit from the lot was jammed with cars. Anxiously waiting, it took 15 min. for us to make it out the exit. We joined the convoy rushing towards Canyon Village. Speed limit signs were a joke. Stands of lodge pole pines whizzed by in a blur. Standing on the side of the road was a huge black bear. It stood waiting for cars to stop to feed him and take his picture. It must have been confusing for that bear as the cars flew by not giving him a second glance.
An orange glow lit the sky to the south. I told my wife, “There must be a second fire.” Flying down the road we knew that we were approaching Canyon. Grassy meadows lined the road just a mile outside of the village. Two dark gray moose were foraging for food in the meadow. The bull moose stood in shallow water and munched on water plants. The female moose stood and watched and she seemed to posture so that tourists could take pictures of her good side.
The Canyon parking lot was in utter chaos despite the efforts of half a dozen Rangers trying to direct traffic. Cars darted here and there and brakes screeched as they try to avoid each other. The road that led to Tower Falls was jammed with cars in an endless stream. The road led past Tower, on to Mammoth, and from Mammoth the north entrance to the park. There seem to be an endless stream of red tail lights as drivers tap danced on their brakes.
Darting indulging your way we made our way to the menagerie of cars and took the road to the cabins. Forced to pull off on the shoulder of the road as panic had given several drivers the right-of-way. They came flashing up towards us on the wrong side of the road. Looking to my wife, I told her, “Panic turns people into idiots.” At our cabin, we frantically gathered our belongings and threw them haphazardly into the car. The night before should have given us a warning. My wife called me out on the deck and pointed to the sky. There in the sky was a piece of Dali art. The full moon hung in the sky as if were red papier-mâché, carefully placed there. “A blood moon., I muttered to my wife. She replied, “I hope it isn’t a harbinger her of things to come.
Joining a bevy of seasoned Yellowstone travelers, we went the opposite way. There were only six cars in our entourage. The average tourist wouldn’t have thought of going that way; it seemed that we were heading directly into the fire. With any luck we could make it out the south entrance. Following the Yellowstone River, we flew through the Hayden Valley. A herd of bison was browsing there; they seemed unconcerned with the fire. As we flew past fishing Bridge, we noted that there were no fisherman.
Hurtling by Bay Bridge Marina, the parking lot was empty. I thought it odd. The safest place in the park would be to take the charter boat to the middle of the lake and anchor there. I surmise that wasn’t a good idea as fire might consume their cars. As we flashed down the road, the sky change from a subtle orange glow to an ominous fiery red. With the lake on one side and stands of lodge pole pines on the other, we were caught in a louche. There was no turning back.
Turning on the radio we tuned into the emergency frequency. The commentator was explaining that dry lightning have started a dozen fires across the park. He said that the fires were fast approaching Norris Geyser Basin and the Old Faithful Inn . The areas had been evacuated and fire crews were working desperately to save the structures. He went on to say that the road to Old Faithful was blocked, so fire crews could freely come and go.
Barreling down the road we approached West Thumb and were stopped by two rangers. The rangers went from car to car talking with the drivers. They explained that the fire was burning extremely close and there was a brief window where they could rush past the flames and make it to the south entrance. Speeding down the road we were traveling much too fast for existing conditions. The sky slowly changed from a subtle orange shroud blanketing the towering pines, to ominous fiery red. Pockets of black smoke distilled around us. I told my wife that it was white knuckle time.
Red tail lights flashed in front of me as a car hit screeched to a halt. On the side of the road we could see a car or belching steam from the radiator. The carcass of an elk lay in the middle of the road. The two passengers from the mangled car jumped out and into the car behind them. Dodging around the body of the elk we flew on down the road.
Three hundred yards down the road we saw towering flames on both sides of the road. The driver of the lead car was either and credibly brave or incredibly stupid. He he didn’t hesitate but bore through the flames. Following the other cars we dashed into the conflagration. We followed the car ahead of us precariously close it was bumper to bumper. The flames lashed at us for more than fifty yards, and we emerge to billows of black smoke. Embers from the fire began pelting us. Another hundred yards down the road and the smoke cleared. We were fortunate to be heading south while the wind was pushing the fire north. We made a mad dash for the south entrance.
With the flames behind this we slowed to a more leisurely pace. We began the count miles to Teton Village. In the Teton lounge we shared a drink with the dozen souls that had braved the fire with us. There was a strong invisible bond between us. The leader of the entourage was a former Marine who had seen duty in Vietnam. He said that the fire was much like a napalm strike. He went on to explain that the forest service had chosen not to fight the fires when they first started. They wanted clean deadwood from the forest. When half of the park burned to the ground, they had to scramble to save historic structures. Standing, I raise my glass, I made a toast. “To the venerable wisdom of the National Park Service.”
Mike Berger is an MFA. He writes poetry and short stories full time
He has been writing poetry for less than four years. His work appear in fourty-one journals. He has published two books of short stories and eight poetry chapbooks. The winner of several poetry contests, he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is a member of The Academy of American Poets.