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  • Thursday, September 6, 2007

    Yellowstone National Park
    Number 2 on my life list.

    Yellowstone was one of the first things I put on my life list when I started it years ago. I loved it so much I thought about putting it on there again, but there is so much of this planet that I want to see. It was my first trip out west. It fused in me a desire to spend as much time as possible in the natural world.

    I also saw Grand Teton National Park, The underrated state of Idaho, Mount Rushmore, Salt Lake City, and the vast nothingness of the America between Indiana and the Rocky Mountains.

    I learned that, for the most part, no matter where you are in this country you are only a day-or-two's drive from anything... as long as you give yourself the time. The best lesson I learned from that trip was that the country just isn't that big after all.

    There is something about being there that just made the ordinary extraordinary. Simple things like walking, eating, breathing, listening, or even just putting your hand on a tree, was all somehow better. Our lives are our five senses, you excite those and life is exciting. In the same way, if you only let them experience the same things life becomes boring and seemingly very short.

    After hiking around in a place like that all day, that bland peanut butter sandwich or piece of fruit is somehow the best you ever tasted. That feeling is hard to explain. I don't know why this comparison seems to fit, but think about how you can watch a funny movie by yourself and not laugh. But, when you watch the same movie a while later with someone that loves it, you actually laugh out loud and have a great time. You just needed a different perspective. Or perhaps a better example is how when a child sees a bird flying for the first time they are overjoyed. But really, how long has it been since seeing a sparrow flying over your head made your heartbeat race with excitement and amazement.

    Since Yellowstone was partially closed that month due to road construction I had to take a detour. Which gave me the perfect excuse to stay longer in the park. In Yellowstone a detour can be a hundred miles or more. There just isn't that many roads. Although there are several stops along the way to look at a 200+ foot waterfall or a deep cliff or canyon, so I'm not complaining.

    One of the most breath-taking of waterfalls curled over the earth at a height of over 300 feet. My whole life I've seen pictures of things like that but until you see it yourself you have no idea what the photographer was actually trying to capture. I imagine many photographers are disappointed when they get home and find out their cameras, while recording what it looked like, didn't capture the breathless awe they had hoped for. So many of my pictures I took from that trip disappointed me in that way as well. Also, I tried using a manual camera for pretty much the first time.

    At Yellowstone's West Thumb, a guy saw me with my old-school 1980 Canon AE-1 and showed me that he also had one. He said it was the best camera ever made. So I talked to him for a few minutes, while his wife slowly tried to drift away, about how to take good pictures. She just knew he would be so excited to get to talk camera. I know what she was trying to non-verbally communicate, my guess is this has happened before. Needless to say my photos of West Thumb turned out to be the best. I guess you learn something new everyday. (At least when you do something new everyday.)

    Since I had to turn around and take a detour I missed a lot of the things I wanted to see, so, I decided to stay another day. It was pitch black by the time I left the park and found an affordable motel. I couldn't see much of the outside of the building but it was a very small mom-and-pop type of place. When waiting for an employee to check me in, I played with a black cat that later chased a mouse around the same corner where a lady came out dressed in a night gown. She lives there and I had to wake her up to pay for the room and get a key.

    The room looked like the 70's. The TV sitting against a wood panelled wall had the old dial with 13 channels and a second UHF dial that delivered a couple of local channels (remember that loud click of the dial?). At any other time or place that motel would have been a little scary but because of where it was located it seemed oddly charming. (And it only cost 40 bucks a night.)

    The next day when I walked out I realized what that 'pitch black' was hiding. There were tall rugged cliffs surrounding me. I walked out feeling like me, looked up and suddenly felt like a very little version of me. It was like when you look up and a low flying jet passes somewhat closely over your head. I was a child looking at a sparrow for the first time.

    Back to Yellowstone... There are things there that you can't see anywhere else. There were traffic jams from herds of buffalo, elk chomping on grass not caring in the least of what I was doing (or what anyone or anything else was doing). I was somewhat envious while they were completely oblivious and undisturbed by the fact that Yellowstone is a giant volcano and could blow at any minute.

    I got so close to a grizzly bear that a forest ranger had to tell me to get away. Maybe if he knew I didn't have a zoom lens on my camera he would have understood and let me continue.. or maybe not. I decided not to test him or the bear.

    There is steam coming from the hot ground everywhere and from pools of extremely colorful mineral and bacteria deposits, trees and entire sections of forest have burned so some parts look eerie, like I was shrunk down and placed on a bed of nails. Mud pits are bubbling, water is shooting up from the ground several feet into the air... it's getting ready to blow at anytime.

    Last time it erupted it scattered ash as far away as North Dakota. When I die, I want my ashes cast over Yellowstone so when it blows again the atoms, that were once me, scatter across North America and get redistributed into the people, plants, and animals all over... how messed up is that for a dream? Do you ever wonder what the atoms in your body will become after life... or what they were before? They had a life before us and will start a completely new one when we're gone. (Kind of like a failed relationship. Personally I'm jealous, I thought I was special.) It's interesting to me... but this is starting to get morbid now and I'm completely off topic, so....

    I missed my turn on the way back home but looking at the map I thought "well it's only like 30 miles out of my way" (and on a 4500 mile trip who cares about 30 extra miles, right?). What the map didn't show was that it was a steep 30 miles and it was really curvy so it was probably more like 60 miles stretched out. I ended up on a mountain that was almost 10,000 feet high. It was 'pitch black' again so I couldn't enjoy any of the view that existed outside my headlights range... but at least now I could imagine what was there. I did see several elk with huge racks, white-tail deer, and other animals with my headlights before narrowly missing them with my car. The only way I knew I was that high was because of the reading on my GPS. Needless to say that "30 miles" took like 2 hours to navigate. It was very frustrating but if not for the 'pitch black' I'm sure it would have been beautiful.

    So, the trip definitely had it's ups and downs. Missed turns, detours, not getting home the day I planned, waking up at 4 am at a rest stop, for a trip to the restroom, and seeing a missing person photo on the door. (It's hard to fall back to sleep at a rest stop after that.) But no matter what happened, good or bad, when I look back on it, I realize that the actual trip could never really live up to the memories I have of it. Does that make sense? That is why I would consider the move. That 'pitch black' isn't just caused by the lack of light. It can also be the lack of something new.