HELENA, MONTANA—Today was my first visit to Yellowstone National Park, but it’s not the first time I’ve laid eyes on it. For a half century or more I’ve watched uncountable TV shows and movies about the park and read stories about adventures that take place in it. These influences built expectations that today’s visit never came close to.
The park’s public face, all made up and pretty for its close-up, is my medial driven expectation, what I saw when passing through its eastern portal was a landscape more blighted, burned, and green, with the latter predominate only around the bodies of water we passed.
And then there was the traffic, a thick, endless stream of economic red blood cells crawling along Yellowstone’s asphalt arteries. A mixture of rental RVs (Cruise America seemed the most popular, but Jucy was a close second), minivans, and SUVs, with a handful of bikes, the circulation slowed and clotted at the numerous consumer venues awaiting the sustaining cash the vehicles delivered.
No indicator could measure the frustration that festered in Ed and myself as we rode to Old Faithful in the heart of the park. I expected what I saw on TV and in magazine, the magnificent geyser of steam and hot water boiling into an azure sky. Logically, I expected the acres of parking lot, but not the three or four huge consumer venues that occupy a third of the hemisphere around the geyser. From one angle you get the pristine photo op, if you’re tall enough to shoot over the roughly 3,000 people doing the same thing. But if you’re out of this small segment of the viewing area, you’ll get consumerland in the background.
Unable to get around a Cruise America RV crawling along the road to Old Faithful, we missed the 1054 show. Having come this far, we stuck around for the 1226 “performance.” That’s what the rangers called it, and they predict the next show on the duration of the one that precedes it. If the eruption lasts 2.5 minutes or less, the next show will happen in 62 minutes, give or take 10 minutes, and if the show lasts 3.5 minutes or more, the next performance will bubble forth in 92 minutes, again plus or minus 10.
To pass the time we watched the excellent orientation film on the geyser, had some Moose Tracks in the Ice Cream Café, and tried to catalogue all the different languages we heard in the crowd. Chinese predominated, followed by German, Spanish, and teenager. Apparently there was a high school environmental competition going on, and and there were several hundred kids, all in team t-shirts, scurrying around trying to complete an information scavenger hunt before the performance.
After the show the traffic was worse, and it sapped all of the life and fun out of the twisty tow-lane that cut through mostly green. Easing the frustration a little bit was crossing the Continental Divide twice, or so the signs said. And then there was that bison cow walking down the middle of the road going in the other direction. (I thought about a photo, but didn’t want to get caught with a handful of camera if she decided to turn my way.) The line of traffic following docilely behind her stretched for nearly a mile, and was growing by vans and RVs. Escaping the part we turned on to a nearly traffic free MT 191 and gave the Beemers their heads. Blue hummed in appreciation.
Blue is now resting in the Days Inn parking lot, and I’m doing the same, sitting in a glider rocker in the shade of a tree outside the front door, a bottle of Stone IPA from the grocery store across the street at my side. A gentle breeze carried my cigar smoke to the east and the setting sun played on a dying thunderstorm to the north, an unexpected but greatly appreciated end to the day.