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).