Living in southwest MT, I’ve grown so familiar with its abundant, natural beauty, I take it for granted. Iconic mountains, roaring rivers, giant wildlife? Whatever.
Even Yellowstone. Been there done that. Unfortunately, it happens to many of us. I bet a Taj Mahal tour guide sees just a building, or a DC native considers the Lincoln Memorial a hunk of concrete. Seeing the incredible isn’t so incredible when seen everyday. Call it natural complacency. And yes, it even happens to those in God’s country.
My girlfriend had never been to Yellowstone National Park, so last weekend, we put on our tourist hats, packed lunch, and headed in for the day. She’s from Australia, has lived in Aspen, New York City, and abroad twice. From an ashram in India to fishing in Maine, this girl has seen it all.
We entered through West Yellowstone, a gateway town with perhaps the largest souvenir selection in the world. Once inside The Park, it got quiet like church. The Madison River flowed slowly beside us, but we were slower, lazily delighted on our country drive.
Then everything changed. We crossed a moseying Bison just off the road.
My well-travelled companion got so excited, you’d have thought Justin Timberlake just asked her to dance. She bounced under the seatbelt, wielded her camera like a gunslinger and shot about a hundred rounds. I pulled over and she calmed a little.
“Can I go out there?” She asked me cautiously.
I leaned close, and did like any other boyfriend would if encouraging his girlfriend to dance with JT. I touched her wrist. “Just don’t get too close, ok?”
Once outside, she continued snapping a fury of photos until the big fella started to meander toward her. This made me nervous. I’d heard about the guy who saddled his kid on a bison, or the gal who tried petting one. Those stories ended so badly, they’d become comical folklore for eternity. No way were we going to make the headlines Local Watches Girlfriend Bucked by Bison.
“Back in the car, Honey. Fun’s over,” I said.
She got in.
He continued to head directly toward us, nibbling grass along the way until reaching the road where he crossed without looking. He walked directly to the passenger-side window and stopped suddenly as if he’d bumped his nose. He was so big, he could have nudged my truck sideways. His black eyes were the size of golf balls. He paused, looked at us, perplexed by our presence. Bison have been on the earth millions of years longer than humans. You could say this old ungulate had earned his right of way. Instead, he turned passively, and slowly walked around.
The usual sights continued to impress us: Mammoth Hot Springs, the Mud Volcano, even Old Faithful. More than bison, we saw a playful black bear, a prancing coyote, and two bull elk with thick, fuzzy antlers. My sweetheart delighted in seeing all of it for the first time, even the placid flow of the mighty Yellowstone River. The Park felt so alive, even the earth seemed to breathe under our feet.
But the day’s highlight was hiking Wapiti Trail toward the Lower Falls of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. Along the way we passed unmarked, bubbling thermal pools, juicy streams, and crystal lakes. We reached the canyon rim that dropped 400 feet below us with no guardrail. Even that high up, the waterfall was so loud it muffled our conversation. The combination of crashing water and deathly heights rattled us with fear and thrill.
We looped back over Tom’s Cabin Trail which ended at the Upper Falls parking lot where another giant waterfall amazed an audience. Our hike ended there, and since we were out of water and still a mile from the car, we hitched a ride back with the first couple who stopped.
A shaggy young man got out of the driver seat, invited us in the back, and was so kind, he rearranged the luggage to make room. They were from Tennessee, celebrating their honeymoon. We complimented their site selection which led to a shared praise of Yellowstone National Park. We agreed, there was so much to see in this place, like several vacations in one. The park is bigger than Delaware, the Virgin Islands, Los Angeles, and Disney World, combined. Our ride was short, but we bonded with these young lovers, enamored too, over this massive, magical place.
“How long you been here?” we asked. Maybe they had a full day too.
“Nine days,” they said and I nearly jumped from my seat. I thought a single day wasn’t enough, and yet, neither is nine. I looked at a map that we barely covered and realized a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to experience all of Yellowstone.
It’s easy to grow comfortable in our environments and take for granted familiar sights. Yellowstone should not be one of them.