I am watching the Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks. Last summer I visited Yellowstone, after having attended an academic meeting in Bozeman, MT. I chose to drive in through the north entrance, which I had not realized had that fantastic stone Roosevelt Gate with the inscription "FOR THE BENEFIT AND ENJOYMENT OF THE PEOPLE," and I found myself tearing up. Tonight's episode included a National Park ranger talking about his first entry into the park through that gate, and the bison that was walking next to the gate, happy as you please. He said it made him feel as if he never wanted to leave. And in a way he never had left.
My experience with Bison was quite as close up, but through a window of my rental car, and consisted of admiring the slow traffic in the opposite lane:
I had been warned about Yellowstone in the summer. It was early summer, and in fact I entered the park on a Sunday in June when admission to the national parks was free. There are wildlife traffic jams, people told me, and there are so many people at times you can't really see things. The only time the crowd was so great I couldn't stop to see anything was my first day (of two in the main part of the park), when there was apparently a bear relatively close to the road. There were also lots of park rangers and lots and lots of people around. But there were moments when no one was visible, anywhere. One of my favourite spots that first night was up at high elevation, where the sign indicated I was in grizly bear environment. I saw no grizzlies. And not much of any person either. It was a gorgeous drive. And the times I stopped, got out of the car, and listened to the wind, were the highlight of the day.
I chose to spend the first day in the north part of the park, made a hotel reservation in West Yellowstone, outside the park, and then go back into the park on Monday, seeing the southwestern part that second day, visiting Old Faithful on a day when admission to the park was not free, on a weekday. Not that it necessarily made it uncrowded! I had also been warned that you had to go into the park early or you would have a traffic jam at the gate; so I did. The problem was I forgot my camera. No, I had the camera; I just forgot the battery, which I had left plugged into the wall in my hotel. So I went out, and in the half hour after the time I entered the park, and paid my fee, left, and then tried to re-enter the park, I ended up in a half hour traffic jam, alleviated only when they cleared out the people who were in the wrong lanes, and they let those of us who had already bought passes were waved through.
But even in this southern area there were moments when not many people were around. It was cold and rainy (there was sleet that second morning as I left my hotel in West Yellowstone). Misty around the steam pots. Smelly, too, of course. But the smells didn't bother me particularly. I don't know why -- perhaps it was because other locations of geothermal activity I have visited have stronger odors (how do you compare)? Perhaps my smelling ability has lessened as I have gotten older? Perhaps I have just got a stronger stomach for unpleasant smells now than I did when I was younger? Anyway, the clouds of sulphur-scented steam were warm, and although I had bought a sweatshirt at Montana State, and although I had a long London Fog raincoat on, and jeans and socks and sneakers (instead of the sandals I had worn in Bozeman), I was really cold. So the warm steam was a lovely break from the rain and bleakness of the weather outside of the thermal springs area.
I went as part of a lifelong visit to the national parks. My parents used to take my brother and I on cross-country road trips very carefully plotted (by my brother, some years) to hit as many national parks and monuments as possible along our route. For some reason we had never gone to the great parks -- the three that are sometimes termed the crown jewels -- Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. I have seen the Grand Canyon from the air, on a flight from Las Vegas to Denver. At Yellowstone there is what they call "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" and having stood at its edge I know that my great incapacitating fear of heights (where on earth did that come from?) might make visiting the Grand Canyon not nearly as pleasant an experience as I might wish. But I will go to the Grand Canyon sometime, I am sure. Yosemite was on the schedule one year when I went to visit my brother in San Francisco, and he drove me up to the park to show me where he had worked one summer as an affiliated volunteer in the meadows and up by the giant sequoia. It was a fantastic trip, in March. The waterfalls were stunning, running full tilt, and we got a cabin in the Yosemite Valley, and ate breakfast of blueberry pancakes at the famous lodge. The stars were of course amazing and I don't remember the wildlife at all. I was too enthralled by Half Dome and the rest of the gorgeousness that were the immobile features of the park. Yellowstone was the one I had never even been close to. I was not going to miss the opportunity to visit the very first National Park in the world.
It was what I wanted it to be, and I felt guilty that I had expectations for it. It is far greater than I ever have been, and more permanent and more changeable than I am. Long after I am gone, it will be there. What a marvelous thought.
One of my students last year wrote her senior thesis on the use of images of the west in advertising of the Union Pacific railroad. She used images of Mammoth Springs and I started there, hoping to see something that was as spectacular as the images Thomas Moran had painted. The Springs vary in their water production, however, and there was less this year than there has been in past years, and the bacteria that give the springs their bright colours were not as prominent, and thus the springs looked like lacy white wedding cakes, but not bright orange as the Moran images were. As I said, it is both more changeable and more permanent than any of us are, and this was a good introduction to that fact.
I saw bald eagles, and bison, and elk, and a bighorned sheep (although that was outside the north entrance, before I got to the park itself). I saw all sorts of ground squirrel/chipmunk critters, most of them enthusiastically begging from tourists, some of whom were not as heartless as I was (channeling the critter thoughts here -- I know why I should not provide food to them and so do not).
I was also interested in the geology of the park because I am a geologist wannabe. I have this thing for disasters and volcanic eruptions/earthquakes are pretty cool things, particularly when they are long past. In 2004 I was fortunate enough to visit Lake Toba, the lake on Sumatra that is in the caldera of the largest eruption in the last 25 million years. Yellowstone is of course a supervolcano, but a bit wimpier one than the Lake Toba one. However, if it were to erupt we would be in really big trouble. I was delighted to see the wall of the caldera of one of the several eruptions of the Yellowstone volcano, and it looked very similar to that of Lake Toba. I think I am going to make an effort to continue to visit supervolcano sites. Perhaps the Deccan Flats should be the next one -- I have always wanted to go to India.
In the meantime, I am enjoying having seen the spectacular Yellowstone National Park. I had to wait until I was 46 to do it, but it was quite worth the wait.
(you didn't think I was going to do this without a pic of Old Faithful, did you?)