Our Story Below is a Tale of Two Tales - Carmen's story on the left, and Sam's On the Right - Hope folks enjoy!
Text By: Carmen Bowes
Photos By: Carmen Bowes
I’ve seen it before, the burnt landscape. Only small clues of it on the tallest points in West Virginia. A singed tree, victim of a chance lightning strike. I wonder if the tree thinks, “Why me?” The lightning struck tree does not go down alone, it takes all its closest neighbors with it.
Driving into Yellowstone, burnt trees cover the earth. Sweet fuchsia fireweed blankets the forest floor beneath the thin spindles.
We drove a long way to be in this place. Our jeep putters up the hills and back down, the weight of our gear heavy upon it.
Today is not a normal day in Yellowstone. It is the day after THE GREAT AMERICAN ECLIPSE of 2017. This means people are everywhere. We hoped some of the crowds would have fled but no such luck, it’s worse than we expected. It is morning, we check for a campsite and there is not a single one open in the entire park.
We are forced into only one day here and aim for Mammoth Hot Springs, it is the farthest north point (we are in the middle of the park) but it is the one thing I desperately want to do.
The traffic is thick but it is a beautiful day. The sky is blue and the sun is beating down hot, but good. I scan for unfamiliar animals and plants from our stopped car. We inch forward and we see there is road construction ahead. We wait there a long time, maybe 30 minutes. I can feel Sam’s patience seeping into the mountain air.
We finally get through and follow the traffic in front of us off the pavement and down to a dirt, one-lane road lined with orange cones. It is so bizarre to see these symbols of human occupancy in this wild place.
We break loose from the construction and pull into a wide spot to stretch our legs. I grab snacks out of the cooler and Sam starts climbing on boulders. We see the old road below us. It mimics the one where we stand. There is not much more of note here. A car pulls in behind us. They are looking for what we see, for why we are stopped. There is nothing, no grizzly, no moose, no crazy critters. It is just Sam climbing a boulder. They get in their car and pull away annoyed, underwhelmed.
Back in the jeep, we head the rest of the way to Mammoth. It isn’t far. Getting close, I see the stark white tower rising out of the pine trees, the travertine reflecting the bright, August sun.
We grab our packs, spray on a heavy layer of sun screen, and trudge towards the glistening terraces. Our floppy hats cast shade on our hot shoulders. We take the boardwalk past pools of mineral-rich water and algae that casts insane shades of orange and teal onto the white calcium. The algae overtake pine branches. They look like orange pine-shaped clouds floating in the clear water.
We wander past big cascades, little yellow flowers peeking out of the white, harsh landscape. Trees, naked and weathered, stand tall out of the pools. Evidence of territory shifts. Once there was soil enough to grow this tree, now a pool swallows it.
The boardwalk leads us from the white cascades to the hot, black parking lot. We jump back in the car and head south. Road construction again on the way back. A mass of traffic at an intersection that had no stop sign our direction. Cars lining the road as we approach the geyser basins. Can’t do that. Too many people. People. People. People. We are people. We are just like them, all these people. We just want to see these wonders, these spectacular events of nature. But we are not like them. We know about nature, we know how far to stand away from animals, we know that this isn’t the only place to find these critters, we know there are so many other beautiful things to see, we know there is so much more to Yellowstone than the people, we know there are better things, better adventures just down the road.
So down the road we go, we head on out of Yellowstone. We stop at a pretty waterfall. We pass beautiful tree-lined pastures. We drive into a magical burnt forest, wildflowers taking it back from the fire. Madly colorful blooms growing on everything. Perfect. The sun shines through the tall, burnt poles.
Better adventures are just down the road, I promise.
Text By: Sam Taylor
Photos By: Sam Taylor
Yellowstone. You hear the name, and if you grew up in the US, it conjures visions of “the great west”. The first national park. The place that inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to create the park system. A place so incredible, so beautiful, that people didn’t believe the first stories from here, and thought they were tall tales, told by mountain men.
I have a soft spot for Yellowstone. I’ve been here literally a half-dozen time over the last decade, and have had the “Experience” – I’ve seen Old Faithful. I’ve had a grizzly get too close. I’ve seen wolves in the road while walking back to camp in the Madison Valley. All of these put together made me almost nervously excited to bring Carmen here. She’s heard the stories, she’s seen my photos, but this is her first trip, first trip to Wyoming, first trip to Yellowstone. I really want her to have a good time, I want her to have just a little taste of the wonder that this part of America brings you.
We wake up in the high desert. A perfect place. It’s cold, at least for August. Low 40s when we roll out. I feel good about today. We start rolling early, knowing we have a couple of hours to the park boundary. We cruise through Cody, and start climbing toward the park, and hit the entrance. We crest the mountain and I can already feel it start to fade away.
The Jeep throws a check-engine light – probably just from the elevation – but not something we want to take a chance on 2500 miles from home. We stop at a service station in the park, and I can already feel my tension starting to rise. We checked on a campsite, and none available anywhere in Yellowstone. On a Tuesday. A park bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware put together, and no campsites. While we are hanging out getting the Jeep looked at, we make a plan for Mammoth Hot Springs – the one spot Carmen mentioned, months ago, as a spot she has dreamed of seeing since she was little.
The Jeep gets a clean bill of health – probably just from the elevation – and we head north toward Mammoth. The hot springs are all the way at the northern corner of the park, we can already tell that Yellowstone is going crazy – crazier than I have ever seen it in my half-dozen visits. I’ve seen dumb people in the park before, but this is another level.
Cars on the shoulder. Cars parked in the road. Literally. We creep along in a line of traffic, unable to see what the hold-up is, and come around to a herd of buffalo – and cars that people are parking, in the middle of the road, to get out and simultaneously get too close to the animals, while also snarling the rest of us. We break through the traffic, and while Carmen is excited about the animals, I can already feel our day slipping away from us.
We get a little further up the road, and more traffic. Road construction. Are you kidding me? The busiest set of days in the history of the park, and half the park is facing single-lane road construction and 45 minute delays each way.
We stop at a wide spot, miraculously empty when we get there, and get out to clear my head and try to drop my blood pressure. I go find a cool boulder to climb, and it feels nice to pull on something, to do work. I get on top, and there are a bunch of people in our wide spot now – more gawkers hoping that we had stopped to see some sort of animal, and instead they just get me. Me standing above the horizon line, center of the scenery. They leave quickly, apparently confused that someone would stop, unless it was to walk out of bounds on a geyser, or try to ride a buffalo, or something else that no one with any experience with wild animals and wild terrain would do. A never ending sea of people that don’t know better, and think “nature” is what they can see from the road.
We make it to Mammoth, and I do feel some relief, and a bit of joy. This place is incredible – and I’ve been here several times – and it never gets less beautiful. Carmen, in her way, is bubbly and excited – like the excited little girl she described when she first told me she wanted to come here. I appreciate her energy – because I’ve been feeling like I’ve been letting her down all day.
Mammoth Hot Springs is classic Yellowstone. Geologic formations only found in a few places in the whole world. Beautiful, delicate, and also unstoppable. The water flows, and a battle older than mankind goes on as the weather breaks the rocks into soil, the trees creep up, then something changes and the water moves, and the stone reclaims the ground it lost eons ago.
Feeling a bit refreshed, we turn back to the south, hoping to hit one, any, of the geyser basins. I’ve been trying to take all the driving shifts so that she can look out the window, and I can tell I’m starting to fatigue. It’s trafficky. It’s hot. The high mountain air (8,000+ feet in the park) has me worried about overheating the Jeep in traffic, so I keep turning the heater on. Back through the construction. Another 45 minutes. Then we sit stopped in traffic. For an hour. We get to the intersection…. And nothing. We had the right of way. No stop signs. What the heck.
We get down to the geyser basins, and cars are parked on the shoulder for a mile before we get there. We get closer, and you can see the crowds on the boardwalk. At this point, we are starting to chase daylight – hoping to get a view of the Tetons before sunset – and we have no idea where we are going to sleep tonight. I’m definitely crestfallen and frustrated at this point. I feel bad that this is Carmen’s first experience here. I feel bad that we drove 4 days to see Yellowstone from the inside of a car.
We make the call to boom for Tetons. We see a lovely waterfall, and then Carmen has us stop at a section of forest blackened by wildfire – and carpeted in vibrant, brilliant, beautiful wildflowers. The sun stars in my glasses, looking through the forest. For the first time today, it feels like we are in our element. Maybe this is a sign. Maybe the answer is to blow up the plan, because the plan isn’t working.
Because the best parts of today were the parts we didn’t plan. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to do my vacation and see the west from the inside of a car.