In Yellowstone, it's never unusual for a car to halt smack in the middle of the road. Nor it is unusual for a car's driver to stand in the road, gawking at wildlife. It is unusual for a driver to be shouting — at me.
I was riding my bike on Yellowstone's northeast entrance road, zoning out. I'd been pedaling for over an hour, finally zipping down a long and steep hill, and I'd let the rolling, rocky landscape slip by while only paying half-attention to what was in front of me. This is always my favorite part of bicycling, when both muscles and brain get a well-deserved break.
"You know, there's a coyote behind you!" shouted the man. Startled, I peeked over my shoulder, and yes, a reddish-gray coyote was streaking along behind me, matching my 20-mile-per-hour speed like a household dog out for an afternoon run with his master.
Even after a summer volunteering for the National Park Service in Yellowstone, where I routinely encountered coyotes during my activities, my knowledge of coyote etiquette in this situation was lacking. This was no household pet, though I had seen this coyote before. I'd noticed that he spent days trotting alongside slow-moving cars where tourists with cameras hung out their windows. To coax him closer, some drivers of these cars offered food, so this coyote had learned to expect a reward from the road, and now was not shy about approaching cars or people.
But why was this coyote running after me? I remembered an unopened energy bar in my jersey pocket, but discounted this as a motive for his pursuit. For reasons unknown, my bicycle and I had incited this coyote's primal instinct to give chase. Was it because he considered me prey? Or was he simply enjoying an afternoon run with "the pack?" I wanted to believe he meant me no harm; nonetheless, I was afraid.
I tightly U-turned toward the other side of the man's car in an effort to outrun the animal. Out of control, my front wheel drifted off the road's asphalt lip and onto the rocky terrain. I tried to perform a Lance Armstrongesque move on the dirt, but failed. The skinny tires, which clung tightly to the road, lacked grip on the loose dirt, giving the wheels a cartoon-like quality of frantic spinning that went nowhere.
The bike toppled to the ground — and only a few feet away, there was the coyote. I remembered the advice that you can always use your bike against a dog, placing it in front of yourself. But my bike, forged from ultra-light aluminum and carbon-fiber, seemed pretty puny as a barrier.
The man who'd first warned me was now shouting, walking toward me while flinging rocks in the direction of the coyote. I joined in on the random firing, but the coyote seemed oblivious. Instead of retreating, he performed a tentative advance-and-then-withdraw dance, darting as much side-to-side as backwards. With stones whizzing by around him, he eventually retreated into the sagebrush, then across the road and up a hill. All the while, he7;d turn and eyeball me.
My protector, ignoring the cars that had stopped to investigate the action, ran back to the middle of the road, still throwing rocks. He shouted: "You ride on! I'll keep him away!" Not a bad idea, I thought, and took off with thanks, though as I glanced over my shoulder, I half-expected to see that coyote jogging alongside my rear wheel. But no, he was silhouetted among the sagebrush on top of the hill. Each time I looked back he seemed to be staring at me, and I wondered again why he'd been such a persistent companion.
Later that month, I got my courage up and decided to cycle that stretch of road again. As I rode, I scanned the hills until finally, I spotted him. He was on a hilly stage, entertaining a passel of tourist paparazzi. I recognized his tentative dance and curious rapport with the visitors, who kept pressing closer. I stopped pedaling and watched the spectacle from afar. It was clear that humans had encouraged his unusual behavior, and if I rode any closer, I would just contribute to the problem. I was afraid that already, his easy relationship with people ensured that his time in the park would be a short one. I turned the bike around and slowly pedaled home.