A hard-earned winter
Yellowstone National Park gets a break from the madness
Yellowstone National Park rests beneath a blanket – much earned respite from the nearly 4.2 million visits it now typically accommodates. If the trend holds from 2012-17, visits will crawl to just about 20,000 this winter - a sharp decline from the almost 2.5 million occurring June, July and August, on average. The wilderness, employees and animals gain some hard-earned solitude from the swarm of tourists and spat of incidents.
On May 19, 2018, when Yellowstone National Park had just reopened for summer traffic, I thought I could get into the park early enough, bypass the craziness and decompress. I turned off to visit Lower Geyser Basin. While walking up the boardwalk – which is placed there for visitor protection – I watched as two women worked their way from the walkway and to the thermal waters. Steam rose and the dark blue water bubbled.
They were walking upon a thin crust that could crumble at any moment: Big Sky resident and former park ranger Jon Rose said that even the walkways have to be moved and reconstructed from year to year – they become unstable in the caldera. The earth is alive and transient beneath that illusory crust of stability. Their friends yelled at them and they yelled back. I didn’t speak their language, but it was a photo–op.
I watched as the women squatted beside the pool and moved their hands slowly toward the water. I was terrified, speechless. My thoughts were dire and morbid in those milliseconds as I saw their hands descend: ‘They're about to begin screaming and they aren't going to stop,’ I thought. I was convinced they were going to remove their hands from the pool and they would just be skeletal – flesh hanging – like something out of a horror movie. Through it all I kept trying to yell but my voice would not come. They found a lip, I believe, some sort of ledge where the water wasn’t as hot as a few inches over. Fortunately, the screams did not come and the flesh remained.
I snapped a photo of them yelling at their friends before I was rendered immobile and speechless from concern. Upon return to Big Sky I showed the photo and told the tale, anxious to hear the reactions of seasoned locals.
“They should be arrested,” former park ranger Rose said.
“You should have pushed them in,” one local said with his typical gallows humor.
“Idiots!” several people exclaimed.
Some found the photo shocking and abhorrent. Others nodded quietly, a sad acceptance in their eyes.
My casual survey lasted the summer and fall as stories of missteps by tourists repeatedly came-up:
The baby bison “rescued” in 2016 by people visiting YNP who thought it looked cold – only to later be rejected by its herd and euthanized by park officials; a young man who dissolved after falling into the 199 degree Norris Geyser Basin – also in 2016; the Oregon man sentenced to 130 days in jail for taunting a bison in an August 2018 incident of which a video went viral; a woman gored this past summer after a crowd gathered too closely to a bison – ignoring the fact that the animals range in weight from around 800 to 2,200 pounds; a man who attempted to soak his feet in the thermal waters in September – again, documented by a shocked onlooker.
Lee Whittlesey, park historian and author of “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park,” released the first edition of the book in 1995. A second edition was published in 2014. Whittlesley did not respond by press deadline to Lone Peak Lookout's inquiry as to if a third edition is in the works.
Any Montanans – either transplants or state born – worth their grit view themselves as stewards of this great land. The park particularly is revered and discussed. Most locals dismiss such actions of foolhardy tourists as a blatant lack of respect for our wilderness; mindless and selfish ignorance. Some consider that maybe cultural differences are at play.
Yet I wonder if it's something else entirely. All of us have a primal call which lures us back to the wilderness from our industrialized, sanitized lives. We long to touch the wild earth; to feel the intoxicating vibrations of unmarred soil; to observe lives lived simply – creatures living purely without much complication – no in-laws, no mortgage; no blaring horns; no fast food. If left unheeded for too long, the excitement we feel when we touch this wild land can be overwhelming.
I remember hiking the Grand Canyon at 19 years old. It was my first real experience with vast and true wilderness. I knew well the nature and hills of Missouri, but never had I seen something so remarkable. I edged up too closely to the edge of the rim. I remember feeling so alive from experiencing that beautiful gap in the earth that I felt I could have done anything; survived anything.
I think on my life now, how I it takes me five minutes – walking – to be on a hiking trail beneath the big blue Montana sky. In my former and far more corporate life it would take me an hour to drive and find a hike with any kind of elevation. I would be battling traffic the entire way and spend the first part of my time in the woods working through road rage. I ponder the millions of people who travel up 191 from Yellowstone – where they are from; what they have to deal with on a daily basis: their concrete jungles and soulless skyscrapers; frustrating commutes. They remove their corporate and/or city nooses for two weeks a year – if they are lucky – and race to the wilderness. For the first time in a long time – Hell, possibly ever – they feel truly alive. And they sometimes act like idiots. I'm diagnosing it as “Wilderness Starvation.”
There is a primal call within us all, often too long denied. I left the city and now live in a two-room cabin by the Gallatin River with no running water. I left cherished family to heed the call of the mountains. I live simply. Nothing I own is fancy. My jewels are in the big sky – shimmering when I need them. Life is not perfect, and I still have my struggles, but now, I can find solace in the wind and the ancient earth.