Yellowstone Sucks, or Does It?

I get to Yellowstone late in the afternoon and see by the sign in front of me that nearly every campsite is “Full.”  All except three, that is, that seem farthest from where I chose to enter the park.  “I have to get a campsite,” I think to myself as I entertain the familiar feeling of rush.  Can’t stop along the way – I tell myself – I’ll come back to see whatever everyone else is looking at, stopped along the side of the road.  Yellowstone is a huge park, and I don’t realize how spread out it is until I am driving for some time and only cover one tiny part of the side road on the map.  I push on to find a campsite before the car in front of me does.

Bison in the fields of Yellowstone

Two hours into the drive, I am frustrated and angry with my fellow park-goers.  Why did they choose this month to come to the park?  Oh, yeah, they have kids and the kids are out of school.  I cant stand kids, or people for that matter.  And the traffic is awful – do THEY have to stop for every damn buffalo, moose and river? I watch them as they jump out of their cars wide-eyed and breathless with camera in hand.  I plot how I might mow them down and still make the Mammoth Campground by dark.  Still, I push on . . . must find camping.

My head continues it’s dialog: And Yellowstone sucks anyway, I don’t even want to stay here – I mean, it’s all tourists – and they suck, and . . . . . GET OUT OF MY WAY! . . . there are no spirits on this land – it’s not sacred – it’s just ugly, ugly, ugly.  Yellowstone is more like an attraction, a natural Disney of sorts.  That’s why I can’t stand it – and rightfully so, who would like this place?  GET OUT OF MY WAY!

Two and a half hours into my mental tirade of a drive, it occurs to me that 1) I am making this situation far worse than it needs to be and 2) I am meant to be on a sight-seeing trip – tourists or no tourists.  Then I do something miraculous: I stop my air-conditioned Jeep, get out, and walk 100 yards to an overlook: everything changes in that moment.  I walk on and am slapped in the face by the beauty of Yellowstone.  As I walk, I touch the trees, smell the air and feel the sun.  I notice fascination and awe on the faces of the young and old explorers who walk next to me snapping pictures along the way.  I watch swallows feast on bugs over a river than is 400 – 500 feet below.

Birds in Yellowstone

I had been listening to . . . and believing . . . what my head was telling me.  That non-stop narrative on everything.  It’s like having a close friend with you 24 hours a day who won’t shut up, and then believing everything they say.  The remedy, I find, is two fold: first to recognize that there is both the observer and the observed.  When I can observe my thoughts, I am not as attached to them and I can actually be entertained by what’s thought.  The second part of the remedy is to take action – stop the car, take a walk, change my physical environment.  The bottom line for me is don’t believe everything my mind tells me.  Much of it is wrong, some it is lies, and all of it will mess me up if I only see the world through that lens.

Although I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked in Yellowstone, I made a commitment to come back to the park another time (e.g., when the summer hoards have gone back to their homes, school and communities).  And, I will plan better the next time I venture to Yellowstone.

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Devil’s Tower

Devil's Tower

The first thing I think when I see Devil’s Tower up close is: I want to climb him! And I do – I want to scale all 867 feet of the tower . . . if for no other reason than to say I did it! Maybe it’s a typical male response. Maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that the nation’s first National Monument emits an energy that I can feel from miles away. I am as drawn to it as the people who sculpted it out of mashed potatoes and mud in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (still one of my all time favorite movies). If there is not alien energy coming from the Tower, there certainly is something unique flowing from this one-of-a-kind formation.

After setting up camp at the base of the Tower, I head to the ranger’s “fireside chat” to learn about the ecology of the park. Chancey, an attractive, young man with funky glasses (not unlike the ones I wore after college, which makes me like him immediately), tells us – with great skill I might add – about how each of the major species of plants, prey and predators fits into the ecology of the park. He tells us that scientists still debate how the Tower actually formed – they agree it formed a long time ago, underground, but beyond that there is lively discussion in the scientific world on the matter. Half way through his talk I notice an HRC sticker – I think: I give to them too!

The Bears' Claw Marks

More than ecology, the stories Chancy tells that grab my attention are the Native American tales of how Devil’s Tower was formed. Tribes have different narratives, though remarkably some core elements (e.g. seven sisters or sever brothers) are the same. One history of Devil’s Tower goes like this: seven sisters were playing in the forest one morning when they heard bears. Afraid for their lives they ran; the bears wanted to eat the girls – they were hungry – so they chased the sisters. The girls knew they could not out run the bears, so they found the biggest rock they could in the forest, climbed on top, and begged the rock to save them. The rock obliged and rose up out of the forest, while the bears clawed at them. As the rock grew, the bears would claw at the girls and slide back down the rock into the forest. Today, you can still see where the bears clawed at the mountain. The sisters were saved, but they were now way up high on the rock. In their tribe was a family of seven brothers and some had magical powers – one was able to fly up and save the girls. To make sure this never happened again, the seven brothers hunted and killed every bear in the forest for miles around – all except for two, that is. Those two had their long tails cut short as a punishment to all bears for trying to eat the seven sisters. And that is why bears today have short tails.

I love this story; I look at Devil’s Tower and can see the bear claw marks in the mountain.

The following morning, I take a short hike around the mountain – it feels as though I am the only person in the park (that is, until I reach the visitor’s center). I listen to the Tower, to the wind, the trees and rocks. There are many stories here. Although I don’t climb this time, I make a mental commitment to return with ropes and harness (and a bit more experience).

Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave

The Faces at Mt. Rushmore

After a nice breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes in the tacky tourist town of Keystone, I drive up to Mount Rushmore.  This is the first stop on my trip that I have really been looking forward to (besides seeing Franz in PA).  The monument is more impressive than I expect – the magnitude of the faces in the mountain is impressive, to say the least, and the grounds are well designed to give visitors incredible views of the four presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt (whose grandson lives in my neighborhood in Brooklyn Heights), and Lincoln.  Getting to the park early is best, I decide, as I don’t have to deal with the crowds I see streaming in as I leave the park.

No other national memorial gives me such a sense of awe, the National Mall in Washington DC comes close, but there is something amazing and special about Rushmore being that is it in the middle of the Black Hills, removed from urban areas.  Rushmore combines man-made beauty with natural – it is a unique combination.

The natural opening of Wind Cave

After Rushmore, I head to Wind Cave National Park, the third longest cave in the US.  The Lakota Indians describe Wind Cave in their creation story – it where they are supposed to have sprung from the earth.  Along with about 50 others, I am escorted down the twists and turns of the cave by a perky park ranger named Nina.  She tells us that Wind Cave is home to 95% of the world’s boxwork rock formations, which are quite impressive, and quite delicate (“if you can break a potato chip, you can break the boxwork,” Nina says to the crowd).

Boxwork formation

We descend through various rooms and narrow passageways.  Nina shines a light on one room to reveal the formations, which are even more amazing when we can actually see.  The next room, she turns off the lights; first using a candle lantern to give us a sense of what it was like for early explorers, then she blows out the candle to give us a sense of the darkness.  At the lowest point on our tour (there are tours that go farther into the cave) Nina tells us that things left in the cave may be here for a very long time – like the early explorers footprints, newspapers, etc – so to be careful.  I offer a prayer to the cave and leave the frustration, anger and sadness that I experienced in the first six months of this year.  We take an elevator back up to the entrance of the cave.  (yes, an elevator!).

For pictures of Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Glacier Nat’l Park and more –> Click Here

Crossing the Mississippi and Committing to the Journey

Soybeans

As I cross Illinois, I think about what it must have been like for my ancestors to travel cross country to where they set up their homesteads.  The Norwegian side of my family settled in Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.  I’m doing nearly 80 miles an hour in my air-conditioned Grand Cherokee – what was it like for them on a train, stage coach or horse?  The Great Plains do not appear amiable – in fact, life here seems harsh – bitter cold and tons of snow in the winter and blazing hot and humid in the summer.

When I cross into Iowa, I almost miss the fact that I am crossing the Mississippi River.  It’s larger than any other river I have crossed so far, and I feel an urge to stop and pay her a visit.  I find a motel in Le Claire, IA and settle in for the night.  I think about all the people in the past who have reached the Mississippi – my relatives as well as the thousands (millions (?)) of people who have made the trek West looking for a better life, land, gold, etc.  How does my venture compare to theirs?  Am I simply following an age-old American rite of passage?

Heading Upriver

That evening I visit with the Mississippi.  I watch a barge push containers upstream and imagine the millions of stories the river keeps in her flowing waters.  I wonder why I am so fascinated by this body of water.  It hits me later: the Mississippi has as much symbolic meaning to me and my trip as it perhaps has had to the many others who crossed it over the years.  While the meaning I make of crossing the river may be different than theirs (or maybe not), it is nonetheless interesting that the Mississippi has a describable impact on people.

My Mississippi crossing means that I am finally committed the journey I have undertaken.  Never mind that I already crossed through six states and racked up just over 1000 miles.  Never mind that I spent weeks preparing: subletting my apartment, packing, organizing my life so that I can be on the trip.  My commitment to my quest comes when I visit with and put my toes in the river.  Until now, I could have turned around and gone back to NYC.  Now I know I can’t – I must continue Westward.

On the Road: What is that Pink Stuff?

The rapture has been pushed . . .

As I leave NYC with my car packed full of clothes, food, camping gear, a bike and my camera, there is a billboard over the Holland Tunnel entrance that reads: “The rapture has been pushed until October, so no more procrastinating.”  I couldn’t agree more – it’s time to stop thinking about the things I hope to do and time to start doing them!  This trip has been percolating in my mind for several years, but has only started to come together in the last few weeks.  Thankfully, many of the details work themselves out quickly – I sublet my apartment, pack, get my car prepared and myself ready (mentally at least) in just under a month.

It's SO pink!

I plan to spend the next two to three months driving around the Unites States and Canada on a spiritual and intellectual quest of sorts.  Spiritual, because I will spend much time with myself in and around nature, which I have come to regard as my greatest teacher.  Intellectual, because I hope to challenge myself, my stereotypes and assumptions and get to know this country (and some of Canada) in a way that I perhaps have not had the opportunity to do before.

Day 1, I make it (almost) through three states:

  • New York (The Empire State)
  • New Jersey (The Garden State)
  • Pennsylvania (The Independence State)

New York and New Jersey are familiar, so I don’t notice much as I drive.  Pennsylvania is a different story: the sky seems bluer and appears to open up wide; the clouds float above the rolling hills in repetitive patterns that make the landscape look surreal; and the roads are nice, smooth and open in this state. I want to relate my description of the PA roads to my spiritual well-being, but the first real question that comes up for me is: what are the ingredients of that pink soap I find at every rest stop bathroom?  (it is the same pink stuff I see in every other part of the country) Is it really soap?  And why is it so pink?

Day 2, I make it (almost) through another two states:

  • West Virginia (The Mountain State) – okay, I was in the state for like 500 yards on I-70, but I was there
  • Ohio (The Buckeye State)

My biggest disappointment of the day happens as I am about to pass from WV to OH and miss the Cabela’s outdoor superstore (I have been searching to no avail for a Coleman Ultimate cooler, which claims to keep ice for 6 days in 90 degree weather).  Another day that my food stays in the grocery bags I packed them in.  Oh, well, I guess there is always tomorrow.