America’s Best Idea (aka There’s a Bison in the Road!)

 

So much to say about Yellowstone.  I’m inclined to condense our stay there into one post – as usual, Tacco was more the picture taker than I (though I did get some good ones), and my thoughts on Yellowstone are gelling into more of a big picture than a granular one.

The title, of course, refers to the PBS special about the National Parks in general, but as most folks know, Yellowstone was our first, and though it’s not the most visited, likely due to the difficulty in getting there compared to a Yosemite or a Great Smoky Mountains, it’s certainly up there.  The first time I visited (not counting aerial “tours” during my Navy time) was four years ago, when we were forced by time constraints and a pending house closing to blow through in an afternoon.  The kids had been excited to see it then and I felt like we let them down, so I wanted to make sure we had plenty of time there this time; I was looking forward to our 5 days.

Interestingly though, I came to the conclusion that a lot of people, maybe even the majority, see Yellowstone just as we did the first time.  They blow through in a day, see some geysers and hot springs, take pictures of a bison or two, watch Old Faithful erupt, and move on.  And that’s crazy because the park is enormous.

I ended up with somewhat of a schizophrenic opinion of Yellowstone – a whole mess of “this… but on the other hand…” type observations.  Let me see if I can flesh that out a bit while talking about our specific experiences.

It is a fascinating and otherworldly place.  If you don’t know the underlying geography, it sits atop a volcanic “hot spot” or “supervolcano,” and is basically one massive caldera that erupted twice that we know of, and then collapsed.  Since this was so long ago, it’s difficult to visualize the caldera from anywhere in the park or even from the air, but it’s enormous, and still active.  Hence all the geothermal activity, and this odd sixth sense you get if you’re paying close attention, that things are “different” here.  Hard to explain, but everything feels alive and in motion.

The down side though… how do I put this.  It’s very commercial.  No, “commercial” isn’t right, but it’s very clear that they have spent a lot of time dealing with the fact that they get a ton of visitors each year over a small period of time (pretty much summer only), almost all of whom want to see it from their cars.  There are rules upon rules about what you can do, places you can go and not go and when, and there’s a feeling of being funneled.  There are ways to avoid this, all of which I would love to try some day but am not sure I’ll get to.  Going off season would be one.  I think a Yellowstone visit in the winter, particularly one that involved camping, would be life-changing.  Not going in an RV would be another.  Though they try, I did not find Yellowstone to be RV friendly.  And I don’t blame them given the sheer volume of RVers they see and the fundamental incompatibilities inherent in trying to bring your home to the wilderness, but it becomes clear very quickly that if you’re going to stay at a nice campsite, you need to be in a tent.  Even better if you’re backpacking.

All this to say that, though we had an excellent time in Yellowstone, by the end we were ready to move on, and we didn’t even miss the first day that we spent with friends back at Hebgen Lake.

Backing up a bit.  We drove in via West Yellowstone and threw the windows open wide.  The drive follows the Madison River higher and higher toward its source, and is gorgeous.  A word on the bison – I guess it’s ridiculously common to have them wander either right next to the road or walk down the middle.  Either way stops traffic just about dead.  You see it the first time and take picture after picture (slowing down traffic further) and pat yourself on the back for getting such a great bison picture.  But then if you stay for a few days it happens again, and again, and you think “Dude.  Thousands of square miles of wilderness and like four roads, and you have to walk here?”  It’s like they do it on purpose.

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Our campsite at Fishing Bridge was… interesting.  The word “sardines” comes to mind.  I just noted that it came to Tacco’s mind too.  Hard not to.

IMG_9016IMG_9017Oh and by the way (and previously covered by Tacco), nothing left out at night that might smell even remotely like food due to the grizzlies, so every time we needed to cook, we had to set up and break down the grill.  We bought some bear spray (to the tune of $50) after reading all the warnings, which are absolutely everywhere.  Never ended up seeing a grizzly, unfortunately (?), but I guess bear spray would work against a hostile human as well, so there’s that.  We still have it.

Not much within walking or biking distance from our campsite either, unless you count the large General Store.  Big Yellowstone plus, which was a surprise:  their prices on everything are very reasonable. We expected price gouging and didn’t find that at all.  A plus/minus hybrid:  zero cell phone coverage.  In theory we liked this and wanted to show the kids that you normalize very quickly to having no cell coverage and internet.  In practice though, we’re still trying to sell a house, and being off the grid entirely is inconvenient at best.  Also, Keeper is at a somewhat crucial stage of the trip (more on this in another post), in which he’s acutely feeling the reality of what we’re doing and the fact that he has left his Maryland friends behind.  It’s very raw for him, and losing his one lifeline to them right now is not ideal.  We found ourselves generating excuses each day to drive to a point where we could get one or two bars of 4G to check email, messages, and texts.  It’s a very odd reason to visit Hayden Valley, which a friend of mine compared to the Serengeti for the concentration of wildlife.

At any rate, immediately after arrival and setup, we biked down to Fishing Bridge (from which you may no longer fish, because too many people did in the past) and checked that out, then headed back to our site.

The next few days were similar in structure, somewhat by necessity I think, due to Yellowstone’s massive size and the distance between points of interest.  We would get up, walk or ride bikes, have breakfast, and then jump in the car to do a several hour tour of various Yellowstone sights, then return, make dinner, and crash out.

Touring Day One took us to the Mud Volcano area, Hayden Valley, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  This was our first view of geothermal features and strong smell of sulfur.  There was also a fairly large herd of bison warming their bums (seriously, that’s what the ranger said they do there) in the area while we strolled the wooden pathways.  The Dragon’s Mouth Spring was a highlight there.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was something I’d seen both pictures of and flown over, yet it hadn’t made much of an impression on me.  It should have.  I suppose the name had me mentally comparing it to the one in Arizona, but radical river erosion is about the only thing they have in common.  Beautiful place that pictures don’t do justice.

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Touring Day Two took us on a longer loop through more of the geothermal features of the park.  We took a long-ish (by Yellowstone whirlwind car tour standards) hike at the Artist Paint Pots, then turned south at the Firehole River to check out the various geyser basins.

Quick digression:  I love rivers.  The astute reader will find me referring to them constantly, and I’m only now realizing how much I think about my immediate surroundings in terms of river flow, and how much of a draw I feel when I see a clear, running river (get outta here Severn and South, you guys are inlets!).  It seems like a massive oversight that I never learned to fly fish or truly run a river solo in a kayak.  I hope to correct that over this year, and to pass some of that enthusiasm on to my kids.  We’ll see if my being “haunted by waters” plays into our future decision on where to settle.

Returning to the Firehole, it seemed like a perfect idea to pull over and dunk our heads in the water at one point, given the heat and dryness of the day.  Also, any excuse to break up the dynamic that develops when you have three kids jammed into a back seat without electronic distractions is welcome.  I’ll say this for Kindles / Phones / etc – despite their obvious shortcomings as childcare providers, they may make the phrase “don’t MAKE me stop this car and come back there!” obsolete.

A majority of Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs empty into the Firehole (hence the name likely), which I only thought about after noting that my head dunking, though refreshing, wasn’t quite as bracing as I’d expected.  The water is noticeably warmer than other mountain rivers.

IMG_9054The Grand Prismatic Spring was a highlight, as was the Excelsior Geyser crater right next door.  It’s difficult not to think at least a little bit, as you and all the rest of the gawkers walk on the carefully constructed wooden pathways around these incredibly violent geothermal features, about how all of them are active right now, and will undoubtedly continue to erupt, collapse, and morph, and how even though there’s been significant thought given to safety, it’s still an odds game.

It also made me think about Keeper’s getting doused by a slightly off-center eruption of a geyser on a previous trip to Iceland.  He got what amounted to a hot, slightly sulfury shower rather than a massive full-body burn, but that seems more like luck than solid risk management.

Earlier that morning, Firebolt, Keeper, and I braved the chill to see if we could catch some Yellowstone River trout.  Our expectations (i.e. the kids’ vs mine) for “fishing” vs “catching” are starting to converge a little.  I suck as a fisherman, but even adjusting for that fact, I tend to see any given fishing outing as a few hours hanging out somewhere beautiful and quiet, with the distant possibility of getting a few bites, and maaayyybe converting one of those bites to an actual hauled-in fish.  The kids seem to be assuming that we’ll have 3 days of dinner within 15 minutes, and get bored when the action doesn’t materialize.  I’ve been trying to explain that the truth is somewhere in between our expectations, likely far closer to mine than to theirs, but they’re not having it – they assume it’s just because I can’t fish.  An early morning on the Yellowstone, however, with the steam rising off the water, brought them at least a little closer to appreciating the process rather than the result.

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IMG_9062By the end of our second “tour the park from the car” day, I took the liberty of canceling the third.  It would’ve been a longer drive up to Mammoth Hot Springs than we’d done yet, and it was time for a chill out day.  Tacco felt the same way — glad we were on the same page.  We did, however, opt to participate in a ranger-led hike near Lake Yellowstone, which was one of our better calls.  Tacco covered it well in her post so I won’t add to it, other than to say that every time we braved the kid-inertia to participate in a ranger led program so far this trip, it was WELL worth it and we all learned something.

Speaking of rangers, I need to give a shout out to Firebolt, who took to the Junior Ranger program there far more enthusiastically than we had even hoped.  The National Parks all have a program wherein the kids, according to age level, accomplish various tasks and write about them in their workbooks in order to earn a Junior Ranger patch.  Firebolt went well beyond her age level’s activities and completed all of them, earning her the patch usually reserved for kids 12 and older.  What’s more, she was thrilled about it, and expressed her desire to do the program everywhere we go.  Score!

A few words on the kiddos in general, as we’ve been asked how they’re reacting and adapting.  We’re quickly approaching the month-on-the-road milestone, and my intention is to write a bit more extensively about how we’re all handling that when it hits.  I will say that the honeymoon is over for them.  Maybe for us a bit too.  Though we’ve hit what I saw as the “high excitement” segment of the trip, in which we hit National Park after National Park in some of the our country’s most stunning scenery, they’re starting to realize that this is real, that our lifestyle is changing semi-long term and not just for a vacation, and most importantly, that they won’t be seeing their Maryland friends regularly, if at all.  That feeling has been made more acute by our being “off the grid” over the last few days.  I mentioned the lifeline of texts being exchanged between Keeper and his buds; the reality of not having that has driven all of the rest home.

Though my sense of it is that they’re absorbing much of what we hope that they will during this trip, the reality that they won’t realize it until later adds a bittersweet layer to it all.  We expected this.  Still, though, it’s a challenge to encourage kids at that age to live in the moment when you’re struggling to do the same.  All of the kids at one time or another over the last few days have expressed their hope that our house doesn’t sell and that we’re forced to return to Maryland.  The realities of the DC / Annapolis housing market make that still a distinct possibility, so we’re careful with what we say about our next few months.

In the meantime, we’re off to Grand Teton next, with a ton more adventure on tap, and a trek out to the Pacific Coast, which we’ll head down throughout September and October.  I’ve been able to get a week of vacation (which translates to a very gentlemanly work schedule for the month, when you factor in additional time off that I’ve been saving up) for August, September, and October, so I’m looking forward to maximum family time at least through Halloween.  It’ll be interesting to see where we are then.

Joining the 3%

Flight captured our time at the Hegben cabin perfectly. It was a lovely place to visit surrounded by great company – I am so stoked to have reconnected with our Park City friends. They had just hosted some Dutch cousins at the cabin and in discussing their visit we discovered that our family histories are eerily similar. Her maternal grandmother and my paternal grandmother (as well as my paternal grandfather, father, and uncle) were POWs in Japanese Prison Camps in Indonesia during WWII and had moved to the Netherlands following the war.

A little aside… If you weren’t aware of this aspect of history, Clara Olink Kelly beautifully documented her own similar experience in The Flamboya Tree .  I had the privilege to meet Clara with my father and I can’t recommend her book enough.

Both my friend’s family and my own immigrated to the Salt Lake City area in the late ‘50’s (they were nearly on the same boat across the pond!), staying with recently converted Mormon cousins. Furthermore, their family, like ours, spent time in the Netherlands last summer reconnecting with their roots. They are getting ready to go to Hawaii for a year where they plan to homeschool their girls. I find it pretty amazing that we’ve been unwittingly journeying in parallel – so great to rekindle our friendship!

So, on to Yellowstone… Super thankful we spent five days here exploring the wide range of things to see in this incredible National Park – and there was still so much more to see. We stayed in the Fishing Bridge Campground (it was centrally located in the Park) and it was tiiiiiiiiiight (worse than sardines), had no picnic tables at the campsites because we were now in Varsity Bear Country, and zero connectivity (wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t trying to sell a house…). Apparently we’ve gotten spoiled with only chipmunks mucking about. In retrospect, Flight and I both noted that the National Park Service has quite a balance to strike between maximizing the number of folks coming through the park (mostly during the summer in Yellowstone) and enhancing everyone’s experience. We would have preferred to be camped next to fewer of our fellow visitors, but in truth didn’t spend much time at the campsite.

Just after we pulled into Fishing Bridge and did an abbreviated set up (no outdoor kitchen needed and no room for the Clam), we did some initial exploring nearby. We did our first family bike ride over to the campground’s namesake, where you can no longer fish because there are no longer any fish. The girls were eager to go hiking on the many trails that fanned out from the river, but we held off as we hadn’t yet purchased bear spray.  I was just excited to be biking around as a family and exploring the beauty of Yellowstone.

The next day it got real. We first went to the Visitor’s Center and got “Junior Ranger Program” books for all three kids. Awwwwwwww yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaahh! The girls took their requirements very seriously and systematically knocked them out. Keeper was less inclined to do so.   Then we were off to the Mud Pots, which really everyone should see. As we watched, the Dragon’s Mouth Spring randomly belched out sulfurous steam, calling to mind a jumble of images ranging from Dragonslayer to this season’s Game of Thrones. Still haven’t finished watching it, so no spoilers please!

The highlight of the day was our hike to see the falls at The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The fact that I didn’t even know that was a thing is indicative of how preoccupied I was during our last visit to the Park. I was happy to get out and hike at last, but wasn’t keen on the vertigo I experienced as my brain tried to wrap itself around the magnitude of what we saw.

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It doesn’t even look real…

And I think I sprouted at least a dozen new grey hairs. Woodsprite (looking a little put out in the picture below) climbed up on the rocks that served as a barrier to the sheer drop off immediately to the other side.

Then, when we hiked down to see the falls, Firebolt dropped her Yellowstone Junior Ranger pencil (see above) and started crawling under the wooden fence (yet another boundary to separate the quick and the dead) to retrieve it.

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On our return to camp we saw bison – herds of them. Glad to see I hadn’t been imagining them on our last breeze through…

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One of the requirements for our Junior Rangers in Training was to attend one of the scheduled Ranger talks.  We chose to attend one under the stars. If you find yourself in one of the National Parks, I highly recommend making the time to take one of these in. Each evening discussion is Ranger specific and the one we attended was all about the history of Yellowstone and how it came to be the first National Park. We learned about the initial exploration (Lewis and Clark bypassed it entirely) of the land and how the natural resources had been devastated before the cavalry stepped in and served as the first official stewards of the park. It was a very eye-opening look at both our nation’s history and our earlier leaders’ wisdom to protect her treasures for generations to come. Even the kids enjoyed the discussion.

The following day we geared up for two more big sites: the Grand Prismatic Spring and Old Faithful. I was unprepared for the eye candy at the former and, after last summer’s visit to Iceland, was underwhelmed by the latter. The colors at the Grand Prismatic Spring were so striking, combining the deepest turquoise blue hues with odd mustard and rust. While it was rainbow-esque in its chromatic representation, its overall impression was made especially rich with the highlight of these complementary colors. Although I had no desire to stick my hand in the 165oF water, I felt compelled just to stare and be. It was glorious.

On our way to the world famous geyser, Flight pulled over next to the river because he wanted to dunk his head in it.  We had been in the car for a stretch and it was hot.  He even convinced both Keeper and WoodSprite to do the same.  Firebolt and I abstained.

Old Faithful, shmold faithful. While we (and the rest of the Park’s visitors) awaited the major geyser’s rupture, we got a preview in the distance from Beehive Geyser. Firebolt was intent on finishing up her Junior Ranger Book, which had a page for predicting the next eruption given the time of the last. There was an average (and motivational) 94 minutes between eruptions and Firebolt was dead on in her prediction. We made it back in time to make a quick bite before hitting the sack.

Our next day was a scheduled down day, rife with planning (route, school, meal, event, etc.) and laundry. Keeper finished his Junior Ranger Program and we went to another Ranger-led program that had received great press, especially from other Rangers.

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The Ranger was a retired high school science teacher from Washington State and did a great job presenting material on the hike. At the start of the walk he let us know he wanted us to view all that we saw through the perspective of a 12-year old Native American girl whose family came to hunt in the Yellowstone caldera centuries ago. When we made it into the forest, he called on Firebolt to help identify the difference between fir (flat and friendly) and spruce (short and spiky) trees using just the needles, assuring us we would all prefer to use the former to make a bed. We learned why fires are so critical for the health of Yellowstone – not only to clear out the dead stuff, but, because the iconic lodgepole pines have seeds so tightly bound in their cones, they actually require the heat of fire to release them so they can multiply. Who knew?

Our guide also called attention to all the signs of wildlife in the area, which, were we that young girl needing to feed her family, we would have shrewdly observed in a few seconds. Everything from the obvious bison scat (which the Ranger said doesn’t smell when dried out (Keeper was mortified to observe me pick up a pie and put my nose to the test) and burns well) to downed whitebark pine cones and accompanying needle tops indicating squirrel activity to hearing marmots whistling their shrill warnings. We learned that there are tons of hot spots throughout the caldera that remain free of snow in winter and where older bison can be found lolling about and easing their joints from the angry cold. Cool!

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Because I’m into this sort of thing, I asked the Ranger what someone who may not necessarily be a hunter but can gather with the best of them might collect along our path. The Ranger pointed out the ubiquitous sage, the also prevalent (and medicinal powerhouse) yarrow, and, WoodSprite’s newest favorite, dwarf huckleberries. Actually, WoodSprite was so taken with collecting and sampling her meager but delicious harvest, we fell behind the group and almost missed the Ranger’s closing story about finding a lost toddler who had crawled away from the family’s campsite in the middle of the night. He concluded his two-hour talk by thanking us for being part of the 3%. The Ranger gestured at the cars obliviously passing by on the main road and mentioned that 97% of Park visitors don’t even get out of their vehicles to hike the innumerable trails. That number surprised me and I am so glad we made the cut this go around.