National Parks, Travels, USA, Wyoming

Yellowstone, Part I: Grief, Gurgling Geysers & Wolf Songs

I was fresh off the loss of her, hadn’t made it more than 10 hours without a full-body cry and I was probably running from the devastating emptiness of a single-dog house. But, I was there, in Montana. Work sent me there, and I, being an opportunist, added an adventure to the backend of the work. It was a decision I’d made before I lost her, one I kept in the immediate wake of the loss. An escape, I thought, might help with the healing.

Work completed, bags packed, grief riding shotgun, I headed south to Yellowstone National Park, a place I’d never been before.

The thing about being solo on the road, is that there’s a single-minded openness there. You can roll the windows down, play the saddest songs. You can feel whatever you want to feel, let the wind take your tears. There’s space on the road to think about all the things, to scream your favorite songs or, if you want, just fucking scream. So long as you’re capable of obeying traffic laws, you can do whatever you want. There’s no one to offend, no one to impress, no one to share radio control with. It’s just you, you and the road.

Years ago, when I first learned to drive, I’d get in the car and just go. I’d drive until I felt like turning around, until a series of turns brought me back to the start, until it got dark. I did the same thing in college, driving big, sweeping loops around my city. It became a thing. Sometimes, I just need a drive. 

At Yellowstone (and this, in fact, a story about Yellowstone) I drove a lot. I drove south from Helena to Bozeman, swapped rental cars and then headed further south, to the northern entrance of the park and then, still further south, to a campsite I’d managed to snag after stalking the park’s campsite reservation page for last-minute cancellations. It was still early afternoon, but I was anxious to get to camp. I needed to verify I had a place to sleep, to set up my tent, to have something settled. So I made camp. I scoffed at the other tents billowing in the wind and complimented my own superior tent-staking skills. I drank a beer, stared at the map, trying to recall the very sparse information I’d gathered in preparation for the trip, failed and finally said “fuck it” and just went.

At Yellowstone, the ground is alive. It smokes and gurgles, belches, spews and grumbles. The landscape is slashed with earth openings, with geysers throwing their insides skyward. There are thousands of hydrothermal features at Yellowstone. A solid half of the world’s geysers are there, mostly in the Upper Geyser Basin, which is where I went first. It’s home to more than 150 geysers, including Old Faithful, that big-ass, fairly regular geyser that graces all the postcards. It gets all the fame and all the crowds, but there are literal miles of boardwalks around Old Faithful that lead past all sorts of sulfur-belching, neon-shaded sights.

I thought it would be a little less crowded away from Old Faithful as I took to the surrounding boardwalks, but Yellowstone is busy. It’s crowded, which was change for me. I’m a girl who usually heads down questionable roads toward uninhabited hideaways. This trip was only a few days though, I was alone and uninterested in being eaten by a bear, and that meant sticking close to the park’s well-trafficked attractions, crowds be damned.

For four or five miles, I wandered. I kept thinking I’d get tired of gurgling pits in the ground, but I didn’t. Those gurgling pits are all unique. They’re all weird and delightful and after a few hours of wandering past them, I returned again to Old Faithful who was, I guessed by the gathering crowds, about to erupt.

Old Faithful, as it turns out, is a tease. She stopped and started, waffled about her spewy feelings and then finally, after 40 minutes of stewing, she blew. It was worth the wait.

After, I took a final look around, figuring I wouldn’t come back to the most-crowded part of the park. It was after 7 p.m., still bright out because that’s how June in Wyoming rolls, and I was almost hungry. I was almost ready to head back to camp, almost ready to make myself a snack, drink a few beers and sit in front of a fire. Almost. First, I wanted to see Grand Prismatic Spring. It’s the largest hot spring in the United States, the second largest in the world. It’s full of brilliant, dramatic colors and also hats.

Yes, hats. There are a lot of hats in the boiling grounds of Yellowstone. It’s windy there, hat-stealingly windy, and despite signs urging visitors to hold onto their hats, the place is a hat graveyard. Grand Prismatic Spring was no exception. There were cowboy hats and baseball hats, bucket hats and sun visors. With waters around 160 °F, and dangerous ground, these wind-swept hats are unretrievable to the average visitor. They stay were they land until, I presume, someone from the park service collects them or the Earth swallows them.

Hats aside, it was beautiful.

Back at my campsite, I did all the things I always do when I camp. I lit a fire, drank some beers, cooked some snacks, wrote a little and read my book. I went to sleep early, exhausted from the journey and the weight of my grief and then, at midnight, I woke to the sound of wolves.

I was raised by wolves, literally and figuratively. They have been my friends, my family. I’ve heard many midnight howls in my life, but to hear one there, in the relative wild of an established campsite, it chilled me.

Then I thought about her, thought maybe my own off-brand wolf had sent her friends to me, to sing me the songs of their people. I listened, wondered how far away they were, what hill they sat atop, what they were saying, and then I let them sing me to sleep.

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