Where the Elk and Bison Play . . . and Humans too
An acrid, sour smell filled my nostrils as I stood on the wooden bridge that overlooked Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellow Stone National Park. Sulphurous water bubbled up onto the surface. The sky was a clear blue save for the perfect clouds that seemed to reflect perfectly in the springs. It smelled like burning plastic, and rotting eggs, but it was the kind of beautiful that I’d experienced only a few times before. The kind of beautiful that comes when humans haven’t managed to spoil nature at all.
I have to admit that I’d been reluctant to visit Yellow Stone National Park. I’m not one to be enthused by what I imagined to be miles and miles of woods and an entire day spent straining my eyes to spot some wild animal. I’m nobody’s idea of the adventure-outdoors type of girl.
Three minutes inside Yellow Stone, though, and I had already changed my mind. We drove in through the North Entrance in Montana to the park headquarters where a herd of elk had gathered outside. My camera was in the back seat. In two seconds I had unbuckled my seat belt, turned around and attempted to grab the camera. It was too late. The photo opportunity had been missed.
We were only spending one night in Yellowstone and had only two hours of light left before the sun sunk beneath the rolling plains that seemed to engulf us. By the next night we needed to reach Casper, Wyoming, on the other end of the state. At the park entrance we paid a $25 entrance fee. To help us get the most out of our trip, we were handed a park map, a detailed and illustrated chart of the park’s wildlife and a brochure about the park’s history. I pulled out a pen and began starring all of the sights that lay south east, the direction we would be driving in. The first was Mammoth Hot Springs.
I knew nothing about Yellowstone before visiting, except that Ansel Adams had taken a fair amount of photographs there, it was a tourist destination and that there was a geyser there that went off faithfully. Yellowstone is actually the location of a supervolcano, the largest volcanic system in North America. The caldera that the last explosion caused left behind the park’s unique geothermic properties, resulting in its multiple geysers, its diverse wildlife and its sulphuric smell.
With one eye cocked out of the window and the other on my informational pamphlet, we began driving to our cabin. The roads grew narrower, and suddenly we were driving through windy roads around what looked like cliffs. The sun was peeking out from behind the silver trunks of leafless trees. Purple streaks had been painted into the sky. As we approached our cabin, we noticed that a few cars pulled over onto the side of the road. I rolled down the window, as a woman approached. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Bear!” she exclaimed. This time I was prepared with the camera. We rushed over. I snapped a few pictures. He was close enough to swat at me, and I was surprised I held the camera steady. Perhaps, though, my hands weren’t so surgeon-like: the pictures did turn out blurry.
We spent the night at Canyon Lodge and Cabins and made use of our AAA discount. We parked our car right outside the cabin but took care to remove all food from the car as thoroughly as possible. Bears are notorious for causing harm at Yellowstone, and considering I’d just seen one, we weren’t going to take any chances. It also happened to be one of the coldest nights I have ever experienced, even in late August. I recommend packing an electric blanket or multiple layers.
The next morning, we woke early to see as much of the park as possible. The morning light lit up the rolling hills a mossy green. We spent a good 20 minutes watching the sun rise into the sky as a herd of bison blocked the road while attempting to cross. Then, as one passed me, I reached out. I touched it. It was a tangible reminder I was in America’s playground.