I stood transfixed, as if in midair, on the rocky outcropping. The air was cool and still, and the fog, which filled the canyon right to its rim, was a living sculpture, changing moment to moment as the sun pared it away in subtle swaths here and there. I raised my camera for one final picture. No click. I checked the monitor. “Card Full.”
I hit the playback button and quickly scrolled back through the last three days for a shot I could do without. That fifth photo of the backside of a mule deer that I took in Rocky Mountain National Park would do nicely. I deleted it and snapped my final photo of the trip. Kirstin and the boys had already begun the long journey home and were back at the minivan in the nearby parking lot.
I capped the lens, breathed deeply the mountain air, drank in the view one last time, and set off to join them. No sooner had I turned toward the lot than about 65 Japanese tourists swarmed down toward me and completely overtook the fenced landing known as Artist’s Point. A few of them howled like wolves, and everyone cackled with laughter at the running joke and splintered off into sixes and tens to have their presence there in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone documented. Such a jarring contrast to my solitary, Thoreau moment seconds before might have been a buzzkill, but their exuberance was catching. I smiled at the notion of them so happy, and marveled at how many of them, how very many, had traveled halfway around the world to see the natural wonders of the United States of America. Our country was, indeed, pretty badass.
Our own journey here had begun nearly a year earlier, morphing this way and that in the planning stages until finally congealing about six weeks before our June 1 departure. We would fly from Austin to Denver, saving ourselves two days of driving each direction. Then we’d rent a car, and after a good visit with Kirstin’s brother and sister-in-law in Denver, we would blitz three national parks in about six days: Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone.
I had always been vaguely aware of our national parks, but was not a devotee as the nearest one to my home was 10 hours driving. But I had gotten religion about them from watching Ken Burns’ 12-hour documentary. And ever since we committed to this park system hat-trick, I had scarcely been able to think of anything else. After doing the calculus and deciding that flying was the only sensible way, we had bought our plane tickets six months out.
Yellowstone in particular was such a piece of Americana that I hesitated to admit to friends I had never been. We watched specials and read and learned more about it in an attempt to get the boys primed. The Ken Burns box set came to me as a gift, enabling multiple wistful viewings on hot Texas afternoons. Nova soon aired its phenomenal “Christmas in Yellowstone” episode. Then the Yogi Bear movie came out, set in “Jellystone Park.” This was meant to be.
Four days before we left, the Destroyer of Worlds had sprawled on his bedroom floor in a fit of despair and sobbed, “I want to go to Yellowstone! I WANT TO GO TO YELLOWSTONE!!!” Never mind that he didn’t have the vaguest notion of what Yellowstone even was. He just knew we had been talking about it for a year and that he wanted to go, already.
With the boys at 9, 7, and 4, this nine-day, three-park blitz would be an epic undertaking. I’m not exactly sure what girding one’s loins looks like, but I’m pretty sure Kirstin and I were engaged in this activity during the countdown. Two full days in advance I set up folding tables in the living room so that we could see what we were packing for each of the three boys and for ourselves. Judging by our living room, we were honoring these national parks by transporting to them everything we owned.
We awoke at 3:45 in the morning for our 6 a.m. flight. Ian surely thought he was being kidnapped.
As we made our way to Southwest’s check-in counter, we must have looked like an American middle class version of a refugee family, wheeling and carrying all our earthly belongings to a new life: an enormous suitcase, the biggest duffel bag we owned, rolling suitcases for all three children, backpacks bearing one change of clothes and activity books to keep them occupied on the flight, and three car seats — two boosters and a full five-point harness. I figured I myself was moving in excess of 125 pounds worth of luggage toward Southwest Flight 1325.
We arrived in Denver, claimed our many bags, boarded a train to the main terminal, then boarded a shuttle bus to the rental car station. There I stood in line for 20 minutes as the sole associate slowly made his way through the infinite variety of coverages the fellow before me in line or I could buy for just $15, $29, or $49 more per day.
When I had finally broken his will to live, he surrendered the keys to our minivan, which curiously were not keys at all but just elaborate fobs, the nubby end of which started the engine when inserted into the ignition. Outside we were greeted by a sea of Chrysler Town and Countries, and after checking to make sure their storage areas would accept our enormous rolling suitcase, the size of the chests people would have moved all their belongings in during transatlantic voyages of the 18th century, we let the boys pick our van, based purely on color. The one Chrysler calls “clearwater blue” got the nod.
And now I began what I thought would be the fairly straightforward process of unlocking and opening the van. The key fob more closely resembled our intimidating TV/DVR remote than anything I had ever seen for an automobile. I punched the button with the broken padlock icon. Nothing. Then twice and it opened. There were other buttons on the remote that opened the automatic sliding side doors and still others that popped the hatchback. It was a miracle of wireless communication, really. But as appreciative as I was of the technology, I never was able to crack the code of which button did what and after how many pressings. Sometimes once worked, other times twice, two and a hold, three punchy ones. It was like you had to spell out “Chrysler” in Morse Code with dits and dahs. Worse, there were two identical key fobs, and I didn’t have the common sense to separate them and simply use one. So while one might have gotten the car locked with one, when we returned I would inevitably guess wrong and grab the other, which either wouldn’t work or worked differently. For nine full days, every time we approached the van, I simply started pushing the ten buttons on the two fobs until doors started opening.
We were in, and we were off, our four cylinders furiously pushing us north by northwest toward Estes Park, gateway to Rocky Mountain National.
We were about 15 minutes outside the airport when Ian, from the middle row of seats, first said, “I wanna go home.” Kirstin and I exchanged knowing looks, both immediately thinking of how inconsolable he had been in his desire to go to Yellowstone 48 hours earlier. We smiled the longsuffering smile of veteran parents, and ignored him.
As we approached the town of Estes Park, I almost wrecked the van in excitement over our first wildlife spotting–two cow elk standing around on the front lawn of a building. Oh, it’s like this? I thought. Elk are to Estes Park as whitetail deer are to west Austin. They’re simply everywhere, with no fear of humans, and probably, to those who live there, simply pests that eat your flowers and crap all over your lawn.
In five minutes we had reached the park proper and wheeled into the first of innumerable visitor centers. Here is the temple of national parks cult, where high priests in flat-brimmed hats spread maps out on countertops and reveal mysteries to excited believers like where the bighorn sheep have been seen most recently. One of the first pieces of information the ranger imparted to me was that roughly two-thirds of the park was still closed to cars because of snow. No matter; there was still way more park open than we could see in our paltry half-day visit.
As this was the first of what we hoped were many trips to national parks, we went all in on the “passports,” the activity books, the field guides, and, of course, the Junior Ranger curriculum.
As little boys will demonstrate, there’s nothing worth doing that can’t be rewarded with a badge. And with two of our three close in age, there’s no badge-winning activity that can’t be turned into a de facto competition. Things might have gotten ugly and cutthroat between the two big boys if their requirements hadn’t been differentiated by age.
Throughout the rest of the trip, we had homework: checking off five of the nine animals pictured above, finding these fifteen words hidden in the puzzle below, finding an igneous rock in the visitor center and describing its texture, identifying why it was difficult for Americans to settle Jackson Hole, attending a Ranger program. And on and on. If we had taken a week at each park, completing the Junior Ranger requirements would have been a leisurely stroll. But we essentially squeezed three week’s worth of scavenger hunts and paperwork into six days. For all the madness of it, we actually gave great credit to the program for keeping the boys focused and engaged.
Our final purchase in our first visitor center was the musical soundtrack to the Ken Burns series. With its fiddles, mandolins, and guitars spinning in our CD player for the next week, we had truly checked the last box. We were Americana incarnate (emphasis on “car”).
Five minutes driving in the park and we had pulled over again, joining the wildlife paparazzi. An elk herd lounged on one of the flats near the highway. We turned out into a small lot overlooking the flats, the camera came out, the boys unbuckled, and we felt like at long last we were doing what we’d set out to do nearly a year earlier.
In twenty minutes we had concluded that elk were pretty much like cattle, only taller, in that they mainly just stood around and ate grass. We decided to move on, and in another five minutes were pulled in at a trail-head where folks were looking through binoculars at the hoped-for bighorn sheep.
Here we decided to try our first “hike,” which consisted of about one-tenth of a mile out and back. As we were still tethered by the short legs of a four year old, seldom did our “hikes” ever even take us out of view of the van. We fantasized that in the years ahead, we would return as hard-core mountaineers, checking in at all these back-country offices we saw, and packing our food and shelter into barely charted terrain. But it was clear those years were far enough away that Kirstin and I would be bent with age before the boys were hardy enough, and in the meantime “hiking” would remain in quotes.
Within another half hour I was putting the minivan through its paces, pushing our way to higher and higher altitude toward something the Park Ranger, or, as Ian called them, Parking Rangers, had circled on our map called Rainbow Curve.
As we rounded every corner and climbed every new rise the scenery was more and more spectacular, vistas stretching down and away from us into steep gorges and valleys, huge cliffs rising up, and now we were seeing snow up close for the first time, pines and aspens growing on impossibly steep mountainsides. I looked over at Kirstin to see her reaction. Fast asleep, and so were the boys. No worries, I thought, they’d see it all on the way down.
I slowed every few minutes to carefully pass a cyclist, some of them obviously in for the long-haul with heavy-looking panniers anchored to their front and rear axles. I figured these panniers were necessary to transport all the performance enhancing drugs that these climbs would certainly require. I’d be dead in the first quarter mile, a grizzly and a pack of coyotes playing tug-of-war with my Spandex-clad corpse.
At last we reached a turnout with sixty parked cars. We figured this for Rainbow Curve. We pulled on our fleecies and hoodies and windbreakers, grabbed up the camera, and headed out to see what the big deal was.
And a big deal it was indeed, a breathtaking view of what was probably the entire northeast quadrant of the park and beyond. Snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks across an alpine valley were only slightly higher than we were. The week before, I had introduced Andrew to the Lord of the Rings movies, and here we started a curious bonding over which scene from the trilogy the landscape resembled most. Rainbow Curve, with its stone wall and miles-long overlook, we decided was actually Helms Deep, near the Gap of Rohan, and we defended the fortress against encroaching Uruk-hai, he as Legolas, I as Gimli.
Back in the minivan, I rode the brake down the mountain and we stopped at Bear Lake. The winding drive had cold-cocked Andrew, and Kirstin stayed with him while he slept in his seat in the van. I led Cameron and the Destroyer of Worlds to the frozen lake’s edge, both of them slipping and falling multiple times on the snowed-under and then iced-over trail.
Our last stop of the day was Sprague Lake, a gorgeous former resort that had been donated to the park. After a picnic lunch, we set out for another “hike,” this one a full half mile around the lake. We had made it over the first patch of snow, when the Destroyer of Worlds got a funny look on his face and began to whimper. Then Ian cried out, “I got to throwed up! I got to throwed up!” We took one step off the trail, and Ian projectile vomited for what seemed like about 60 seconds into the strip of snow and pine needles between us and the sky-blue lake. Best we could tell, it was just one of those random childhood hurlings that can strike at any time and for any reason. Might have been the altitude. Might have been the curvy roads we had just come off of. Might have been those hundred and fifty nacho cheese flavored Doritos … or some combination of the three. Regardless, when he was empty, he felt all better. And in the ultimate leap of faith, I put him on my shoulders and we proceeded around the lake.
If Ian’s vomiting on the banks of Sprague Lake represented the low point of the trip thus far, perhaps the high point was just five minutes later, when we walked up on a group of park goers giddy at the sight of a bull moose just thirty or so yards away. Perhaps the Dorito vomit had drawn him in, sort of like a chum trail — I admit this is unlikely.
When we returned to the parking lot, we found two fresh-faced park rangers who quizzed the big boys on what they had seen that day and administered their first Junior Ranger oaths.
With our loop complete, and our boys sworn to protect our world and everything in it, it was time to say goodbye to Rocky Mountain National Park.
I have nothing but admiration for the rangers we encountered throughout our trip, with the singular exception of the one who, at the beginning of this day, hovering over a map, told me that there was an alternate, more scenic drive back to Denver that we should consider taking, a route that was just “slightly” longer than the way we came in. WRONG!!! Way longer, Dudley Do-Right! Way longer! By the time, we were back to Denver, Kirstin was one raw nerve from the switchbacks and the drop-offs, yes, but mainly, just from not knowing how much longer the drive was going to last. That extra hour-and-a-half forever cured her of wanting to live in the mountains. And I wasn’t feeling my oats either, both of us eating ibuprofen like it was Tic Tacs to combat the altitude headaches.
Back in Denver, we moved into the boys’ Uncle Greg and Aunt Esther’s 800-square foot house, the favorite attraction of which was the doggy door cut into the back door. Ian crawled through that door at least sixty times, and there is no doubt that this is what he’ll remember most, not just from Greg and Esther’s, but from the entire trip. We’ve noticed this is true for all the boys — that the best part of any vacation is not what you’ve set out to see and do, but wherever you’re spending the night. They’d much rather explore the closets of a new hotel room or have a pillow fight on its king-size bed than traipse along a mountain range or ride a roller coaster or just about anything else. It’s about the room.
On the next day’s agenda was river rafting with Uncle Greg, who, conveniently enough, owns a river rafting company and had agreed to find a very flat, beginner stretch of the river west of Denver for us to float down. In Idaho Springs we found the Wide Open Adventure office and outfitting station. There, we spent the better part of an hour trying to find and get all five of us into suitable gear. As far as we know, the Destroyer of Worlds was the smallest human to have run this stretch of the river. His coat swallowed him like Medieval tunic, and we had plenty of misgivings about the stage of the water and whether any of this was a good idea given the record snow runoff that was pushing the river higher every day. But Uncle Greg was a consummate pro, and we trusted he wasn’t going to set us up for the coldest swim of our lives.
I squeezed myself into the wet suit, pulled on the booties, pulled the windbreaker-like coat over my top, strapped on my helmet and finally donned the life jacket. And, with Kirstin, did same for all three boys. I hadn’t had this 19th century chastity contraption on for more than 30 seconds before I realized I needed a bathroom. As the office did not have one, we had to walk to a Subway sandwich shop next door. There, I stripped off my jacket and beheld for the first time, in the enormous bathroom mirror, the specter of my body in a neoprene wetsuit. The shock has now passed, but I’m still not sure I’m over the depression. Imagine a shirtless middle-aged man in a pair of skin-tight overalls, black, of course, to accentuate his paleness. I looked like a professional wrestler from the ‘50s, before gyms, chest waxing, and tanning booths became the norm. The black suit pressed and squeezed against my pasty, hairy, pear-shaped torso like a full-body set of Spanx for men, rendering the most unforgiving, unflattering profile shot of myself I’ve ever allowed to penetrate my consciousness. The picture in the mirror looked like a seal trying to eat a polar bear feet first.
I quickly unsnapped the shoulder straps, peeled myself like a banana, emptied my bladder, re-snapped, and hurried the loose-fitting jacket back on before anyone else could be likewise traumatized by the sight.
After a slightly unnerving ten minutes of sitting in the raft on shore and watching the roiling and inadequately named Clear Creek roar past us, we were ready to face the music and we pushed off. We floated past abandoned gold and silver mines, ducked under bridges, passed a water mill, and hooted and generally made like we were on Class Four rapids even though it was not even Class One. And the boys went gamely along until at one point I looked over my shoulder to see that Andrew was gray and his eyes were slits.
“Buddy? What’s going on, buddy? Greg– can we pull over?”
Greg made some sort of signal to the guide in the lead boat, grabbed a rope, lept out of the boat onto a gravel bar and dragged us onto the island. Andrew left the boat and stumbled around for a minute; we were certain he would repeat Ian’s hurling of the previous day, but he pulled it together like a little soldier and within a few minutes we had finished the float.
With our whitewater adventure behind us, we drove the rest of the afternoon through the beautiful borderlands between Colorado and Wyoming. This was the one night for which we hadn’t reserved a room, and it reminded me of driving vacations when I was a boy, where we rarely if ever had reservations, taking things an hour at a time. In Rawlins, Wyoming, we found a Best Western, and the boys proceeded to our room and thrilled at everything they found there. After a fried dinner under a taxidermied elk mount, a good night’s sleep, and a gray breakfast in the same restaurant, we excitedly made away from Rawlins and at long last were almost to the Mecca of our pilgrimage, the national park duplex of Grand Teton and Yellowstone.
Central Wyoming is beautiful but ever so empty. Vistas spill away from you for fifty miles in every direction. We’re used to this sort of emptiness in Texas, especially West and South Texas. We long ago adopted the Mad Max term “The Nuthin’” to describe these places where you could go twenty minutes without seeing another car and an hour between city limits. After days of driving in the mountains, constantly riding the brake down to twenty miles an hour for each switchback, it was nice to let it out a little bit and make up some time. Besides, being able to see for fifty miles in every direction made an accident as unlikely as it had ever been.
So imagine my surprise when we rounded that bend and saw the state trooper parked in the oncoming shoulder with his radar gun pointed directly at me. I knew in an instant I was toast. The patrol car slowly made a U-turn in my rearview mirror, and on came the Christmas lights.
“Okay, boys,” I sighed. “Daddy’s getting a ticket.”
“What?!” they asked excitedly from the third row.
“This policeman is pulling me over.”
“Are you going to jail?” the boys asked in unison. My mind immediately went to whether that would fulfill a Cub Scout elective, like the field trips to a bank or the state capitol. I pictured the sentence “Go see a jail” with a colorful illustration next to it in the Wolf Handbook.
“I don’t think so, Cam. Just a ticket, but I need you guys to be quiet for a minute, okay?”
“Okay. (a beat) How fast were you going—”
“You need to be quiet!” Kirstin breaks in.
The trooper approaches the car.
It was a fairly standard stop, including the part where he sat in his car behind me for ten to fifteen minutes working a Sudoku puzzle, texting his girlfriend, or doing Lord knows what else. I think troopers must be duty bound to make the stop last so long that it negates whatever good time you were making by speeding.
When I got back to Austin and read the fine print on the back of the citation, I learned I had been charged with an “offense against the peace and dignity of the State of Wyoming.” That seemed a little overwrought, and I suspected somebody at the Wyoming DPS had been reading the Federalist Papers for their night class. It was a cruel irony — after all, experiencing the “peace and dignity of the State of Wyoming” was the very reason Kirstin and I were bleeding our bank account dry and dragging our kids clear across the American West in planes, trains, and automobiles. Ozzy Osbourne taking a leak on the Alamo was an offense against the dignity of a state. Going 82 in a 65 — when we hadn’t seen another car in ten minutes — is merely an attempt to maximize our time in Grand Teton. To not get there as soon as possible would have been the greater offense. Alas, not a view shared in Lander, Wyoming.
After we had idled on the shoulder long enough for him to have watched Gone with the Wind on his dashboard monitor, he released us on our own recognizance, and we pushed northwest at precisely 65 miles per hour.
Soon the landscape changed from tan and sage to red canyons and fantastic geological rainbows of purple and gray and beige and rust. Then, quite suddenly, we climbed, and everything began to change rapidly. Gorgeous charcoal mountains accented with brilliant snow rose up on all sides of us, and soon, as if we had just passed through the Wardrobe, we were driving through fresh-looking snow and pines.
We had not even reached the boundary of the park when I saw a red fox scamper across the road and sit on the snow off to our left. To the amateur wildlife photographer, it was too good to be true. He just sat there as if to say he was ready for his closeup, Mr. DeMille. There was no turnout, but I deemed the shoulder wide enough for a safe stop and so hit the brakes and wheeled over. Kirstin grabbed the camera and put the long lens on for me while the boys watched from the back of the van.
I got out and crossed the road in a crouching position. Whom I thought I was fooling with this hunter’s stalk I have no idea because I certainly wasn’t fooling the fox, who looked at me as if I were insulting his intelligence. His thought bubble read: “What’s this dipshit think he’s doing? I’m a fox.” Regardless, I fired off three fine photos and with the zoom function on the camera’s playback, I even learned that night that he had blue eyes.
At last we reached Jackson Hole, the name for the massive basin of which Grand Teton is only a part. Up here it was Jackson everything. Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson Hole, Jackson Lake, Jackson Lake Lodge. Ever since we started researching this vacation I had assumed it was all named for Andrew. In fact it was named for David Jackson, a trapper who was one of the first whities in the area.
Five minutes inside the park, we encountered twenty cars pulled onto the shoulder and a mass of tourists with binoculars, tripod-mounted scopes, and cameras ranging from disposables to those the size of bazookas. This was our first real experience with the flash mob of wildlife paparazzi. If you’re driving in the national parks (and you are typically driving) and you see a mob, there’s something good out there, so you better check your snobbery, drop whatever fantasy you’ve been harboring about spotting wildlife yourself, and just pull over. Here at this pond directly across the road from one of the park’s biggest visitor centers and lodges, a mother moose and her calf had taken up pretty much permanent residence. Every time we passed this way, there they were, as if kept their by shock collars and an invisible fence. It was an easy win for us beginners.
When the boys’ curiosity had been sated — and this never took long — we were on to find our cabin. Time had gotten away from us as we meandered through the mountains and the crew was transitioning from hungry to cranky. Determined to not eat out at every single meal, we stopped at the park grocery store and loaded a basket with sixty dollars worth of fruit, sandwich meat, bread, peanut butter and jelly, paper plates, cups, and plasticware.
The little grocery was our first exposure to a whole class of people we would continue to encounter throughout the national parks: the working retired. They were cashiers and stockers at the gift shops, information desk workers, laundromat attendants, all sweet people who had the good idea of getting away to the mountains for a nice long break to make a little cash before retirement started in earnest, and as far as I could tell, have the adventure of operating a cash register for the very first time. I’m sure that working in Grand Teton or Yellowstone sounded ever so much better to that IBM team manager before he was assigned to work the counter at the laundromat, trying to figure out how to run my credit card for a $1.99 Wilcoxson’s ice cream sandwich. He surely would have to go all the way back to high school to find a job so menial on his résumé — but you can’t argue the scenery, and that’s the point.
We didn’t come out that far ahead for all of our provisioning at the grocery, but we felt virtuous and took comfort in knowing we’d survive if we didn’t make it to a restaurant before closing time. But the grocery shopping had made us even hungrier.
As soon as we pulled up to our quaint 1930s log cabin, I took off jogging around the grounds to find a picnic table. Alas, my running form was not everything it might have been, and when I caught my toe on the raised lip of a sidewalk, I went down hard. In addition to being hungry, my hands now stung with the full force of 190 pounds falling five feet onto asphalt. It was over before I knew it, but if seen in slow motion it would have been a spectacular NFL dive for the end zone, my gangly frame lurching forward head-first, then the limbic realization and a look of terror on my face as my hands instinctively thrust out in front of my body, a hard horizontal landing followed by two full rolls to slow the momentum.
I was immediately overcome with the realization that all of this — all the planning, all the money, all the vacation time expended, all the days and months of anticipation — could go up in smoke from one bad step. This vessel of so many hopes and dreams was fragile. I was okay, but if I had broken my elbow, or if any of us broke anything, the world’s greatest family vacation would be for all intents and purposes over.
After all that, with apologies to Yogi Bear, there were no “pickanic” tables. We opened our dark little cottage and built sandwiches of ham and turkey and Goober Grape for the boys using one of the beds as a work surface.
The cabin was truly great in every respect but one: 10 seconds after we flushed the toilet, the plumbing reacted with a low, ominous foghorn-like groan that resonated through the entire structure. The edict came down right then that no one was to flush the potty overnight. But it provided a lot of good laughs until then. “Pardon me.” … “Excuse you!” … “Ian!”
That afternoon we set out to see some more animals. We whipped and spurred the minivan up Signal Mountain, where we soaked in most of the southern reaches of Jackson Hole and the Snake River. At the summit, we came face to face with a chicken-sized bird we later identified as a blue grouse, hopping along a low branch.
That was plenty interesting, but on the descent, things got more so. I pulled over behind a ranger truck and got out with the camera to investigate. A black bear was crawling through the tall brush about forty yards off the road, and I sidled up to a young couple who pointed him out to me, while Kirstin, following a superior set of instincts, took the boys across the road and up a hill to watch. When the show was over and we were back in the car, I handed her the camera to view the results. “You got an excellent shot of a bear’s back,” she said. It wasn’t sarcasm, it was simply the best she could say about it. He had ducked his head just as I pushed the button.
It wasn’t until the next day, when we had reached Yellowstone, that I saw a very prominent sign in the men’s room reading, “Always keep one hundred yards between yourself and a bear or wolf (twenty-five yards for all other animals).”
* * *
At last — or perhaps I should say already — we were headlong into our ultimate destination, the world’s first national park, land of geothermal wonders and free-roaming bison and wolves — Yellowstone.
We were no more than forty-five minutes inside the park when we spotted our first group of geothermal features. Geysers, mud pots, fumaroles, steam thingies, sulphur-majiggers, and day-glow bacteria ponds. (Our labels, not sanctioned by the park service.) We traversed the long, snaking boardwalk along the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, puzzling mightily over a wide variety geothermal thing-a-mabobs, all groundwater set to “simmer” over a rocky crust just three miles thick. Mother Nature’s freak show.
My favorite story on the topic was of the early fishermen who caught their dinner in the lake and, in one fluid motion, flung the still-hooked catch into natural mini-volcanoes of boiling water — the so-called hook-n-cook method.
And soon we came upon the bison. Noble beasts, so primeval with their enormous humps, dark horns and shaggy coats. They inspire awe as they move across the flats. They are a wonder of the natural world, a national symbol, and one of our most important environmental success stories.
They also crap a lot. They crap everywhere. Some call them buffaloes. I call them crappaloes. On the side of the road. On the road. On the path to the cafeteria. In the two-square-foot area right outside the front door of our lodge. I now understand why the Plains Indians burned buffalo chips. It wasn’t because they were a rich fuel source needed for heat and cooking in a land of carbon scarcity. It was simply the fastest method of getting it the hell out of the way so they wouldn’t constantly be scraping it off their moccasins. Sheesh! And I had to constantly remind myself that all of this was from a relatively small population, still recovering from near extinction. I learned from one of the interpretive museum exhibits within the park that bison once ranged pretty much over the entire lower 48 states. Imagine the output from those numbers! Our fair nation was, from sea to shining sea, well nigh built on a thick foundation of bison patties. Purple mountains majesty, indeed.
By our second day in Yellowstone it was high time to see the most iconic feature of our most iconic national park, Old Faithful. If something were to happen, like the jogging wipe-out I had two days before at Grand Teton, and we were not able to see it, it would have felt like the entire epic enterprise had been a Wally World-like failure. As we were staying at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — which sounds like it was once sued for trademark infringement by the Grand Canyon and so had to add the qualifier — we were about an hour from the famous geyser following the enormous, lazy loop that facilitates travel throughout most of the massive park.
Following the signs to Old Faithful, we turned off the main highway and immediately came to a stop behind a line of cars. Hmm, we thought. Maybe it’s another paparazzi mob. Trouble was, no one was out of his car. Perhaps it was a horrible traffic accident, someone’s RV overturned in the Gibbons River, Memaw and Pappaw being swept toward the falls. We crept ahead at about two miles per hour. Soon enough, we understood what was happening. We were a part of that pageant that is a rite of passage for all Yellowstone visitors if they stay long enough or return often enough — the Yellowstone Bison Traffic Jam. The way we deduced this was, of course, the verdant mounds crap all along the road over which we were slowly rolling.
For a full two hours, TWO HOURS, we crept along at bison speed, a line of cars a hundred long. It wasn’t entirely the bison’s fault, as they were simply walking on the only safe path between a rushing river on their right and a steep hillside on their left. Kirstin and I nervously ran the numbers in our heads. At what point do you bow out and turn back? Thirty minutes? Forty-five minutes feels like a huge investment on a day as precious to our family as this one. By turning back we would have wasted those forty-five minutes. On the other hand, if no one is passing the bison, then this could literally go on for the rest of the day. The boys’ vacation journal entries for Day 2 would chronicle only what the back of the camper shell directly in front of us looked like. So bad was it I even started to question our decision to not bring the portable car DVD player for the boys.
Although it didn’t really matter how far back we were (since no one was passing the plodding beasts) still, I couldn’t stand not knowing the details: how many? and where were they in relation to the Seale-mobile? I gave the wheel to Kirstin, got out, and joined the parade of parents and kids walking along the shoulder.
At last, just as I had reached the bison on foot, the road veered a little ways away from the river, and the bison lumbered down to the freezing water for a well-deserved drink. Our afternoon was saved, most of it. I leapt up and down on the shoulder and pumped my fists in the air, rejoicing with passing drivers and watching for the minivan to pick me up.
Within minutes we had reached Old Faithful, and a parking lot that resembled that of a mid-sized mall. Through the large wall of windows in the visitor’s center, we saw the geyser steaming and in front of it, a large sign in the foyer reading “1:47” — the forecast time for the next show. We took our lunchables to a shady spot where the boys could listen to a park ranger’s talk and so get credit toward their Junior Ranger badges. As go-time approached, visitors by the hundred congregated on a huge semicircular boardwalk about seventy-five yards from Old Faithful.
There are two things I’ll never forget about Old Faithful. The first is the geyser itself — how it steamed nonstop so that everyone would know where to look, how it belched and cleared its throat before going off, and how it finally blew, right on time, high into the clear blue Wyoming sky.
The second thing that impressed me was this: This is one of the true wonders of the natural world, not only a giant geyser but one that goes off like clockwork every ninety minutes, as if created just for the convenience of tourists. It spouts for about three minutes. And yet, people to my left and right were wandering off before it had completed its three-minute eruption. Part of me wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt: maybe they had been here all day long and this was their sixth viewing. But another part of me judged them harshly: You mean to tell me that you’re standing before one of the natural world’s most impressive sights, and your attention span won’t allow you to just hang for three-minutes?! Go! Go back to the suburbs, you ingrates! Back to your shallow, media-saturated, sugar-addled lives of idiotic reality television and fast food and compulsive shopping! Nah, they had probably just been there all day.
Yellowstone marked our third hotel room of the trip, and here we would put down roots: three glorious nights without unpacking and repacking. With five of us in one room, I couldn’t help but ponder what a far cry this was from Kirstin’s and my earliest experiences in hotel rooms. With this many people within four walls, I couldn’t so much as gaze lovingly into her eyes.
The practice that allowed us to wedge five people into a room with two beds was a concept that will be familiar to any parent of three or more children, a concept Kirstin, in a stroke of genius, had coined “Ian’s Special Bed.” For more than a year whenever we were traveling, the big boys would share the second bed and Ian would get his “special bed.” This usually consisted of a blanket on the floor. When you’re 35 pounds, the difference between a Serta Perfect Sleeper and a beach towel on the floor is negligible. In this case, it was a chair that, when combined with its ottoman, served perfectly as “Ian’s Special Bed.”
I noticed Kirstin had brought up several times since we reached Yellowstone how badly we needed to do laundry. As the boys and I were accustomed to camping, and we figured all this for something akin to a glorified camp-out, doing laundry was not something that was at the top of our lists. But as a consolation to the fact that she as a female is always outnumbered, and in recognition that she is always right about everything, I decided not to resist her suggestion that we spend tonight, our twelfth wedding anniversary, in a laundromat. It wasn’t going to be a traditional anniversary date in any event.
We were changing our three loads from the washers to the driers when we paused three seconds to toast our union, her with an ice cream sandwich, me with a chocolate shake out of the chest freezer. It was an iconic moment that summed up this stage of our lives as neatly as any could. To everything there is a season; a time for every purpose under the sun. And I wouldn’t have traded this season, this night — listening to the whir of driers and watching our three blond monkeys climb around on countertops in a national park laundromat — for a week in Paris or anything else. We called our wedding anniversary “our family’s birthday.” And while there are a thousand fine ways to commemorate it, there weren’t any better than this.
Kirstin and I fancy ourselves reasonably frugal relative to the modern, materialistic American family. We only buy used cars. She cuts coupons and watches for sales; I ride the bus, eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch more days than not, and shop at Goodwill. But there’s something about vacations that prompts us to both spend money and ingest calories like the world is ending the following week. And it was a good thing we were now in this new mode, because while the dining situation in Yellowstone is varied, it is never cheap. Our grocery run in Grand Teton was still paying dividends, not least to the carpet of the minivan, which was now so encrusted with chips and goldfish around the boys’ seats that I was starting to wonder if even the most toxic of industrial solvents could free it.
But I was still unprepared for the total for our first cafeteria meal in Yellowstone, a cool $50. No wonder they can keep the entry fees so low. It’s like anywhere else you go; they get you on the drink. Having lived and learned, we trimmed that total by nearly $15 on our next trip to the cafeteria just by foregoing the $2.50 soft drinks.
But vacation-eating rules, marked by the very absence of rules, were still in effect: while we normally insist on wheat bread, organic peanut butter, and something fresh at every meal, we now watched serenely as the boys poured chocolate milk on their Fruit Loops.
Before we had left Austin, I had resolved to take some really good pictures on this trip. We had borrowed a friend’s camera, and I had planned to go on photo mini-safaris every day at sunrise and sunset to try to get good wildlife portraits and “golden hour” landscapes.
What I didn’t plan on was the fact that Ian was the first one awake every morning, and in order to keep the other boys and Kirstin asleep, I would have to take him with me. This was ever so perfect. During the one time of day when I might have been able to stalk an elk for an extreme close up, his tawny eyelashes highlighted by the rising sun, or frame up that single drop of dew just about to fall from a pine cone, I had the Destroyer of Worlds riding shotgun, singing the Wonder Pets theme song at the top of his lungs and continuously asking for “a dwink.” But to be fair, he wasn’t a total handicap. In fact, he proved a pretty good spotter on a couple of occasions, and we bonded happily as we drove the winding roads to the National Parks soundtrack.
On Day Three, we came upon a roadside mob with cameras and binoculars trained on something across a snowy field. I zipped up my windbreaker, grabbed the camera and sprinted across the road to fall in formation. After asking around for what and where it was and verifying it with my own binoculars, I jogged back to the van. This was the top prize for wildlife watchers in Yellowstone.
“Boys! It’s a grizzly! C’mon! Who wants to see?!”
“We’ll just stay here and work on our Junior Ranger stuff,” said Andrew. “Yeah, it’s sort of raining,” Cameron added. Wow, I thought, so jaded after merely three days that they refuse to even get out of the minivan to glimpse the top predator of the New World. Rangers indeed.
But we’re all prone to cynicism at some point. I saw it in myself. On our last day, we still hadn’t seen any wolves, which are notoriously reclusive, but I had heard there were some patrolling Hayden Valley, where we were passing through. A car was pulled over, and not at a turnout, which usually signaled something juicy. I slowed and rolled the passenger window down.
“‘Morning. Whatcha got?” I asked.
“An elk,” said the young lady with the binoculars. I smiled and waited for some other descriptor like, “… being torn apart by a pack of wolves.” But none came. Just “an elk.”
“Nice,” I said before accelerating away. As we gained speed and I powered the window up, I realized I might as well have said, “You stopped for that? First ten minutes in the park, huh? Adorable…” then peeled out leaving her in a cloud of blue smoke.
In just days we all had become jaded. The wildlife paparazzi culture had imbued in us a subconscious but crass rating system in which God’s magnificent creation was reduced to an index of four combined criteria: size, rarity, familiarity, and predator/prey status. Moose beats elk for size and rarity. A bird could be of the rarest species in the world but get passed over for black bear, beaten on size and familiarity. Wolf vs. grizzly is a draw: both rank high on familiarity and predator status, grizzly wins on size but wolf wins on rarity. Even though an elk beats a fox on size, the fox is more elusive and also has that predator swagger. And so on. A chipmunk is cute but after the first photo you don’t break your stride for that. For a wolf sighting, I would have put the Town and Country into a Starsky and Hutch-inspired 180-degree skid.
* * *
It was over, we had checked out of the Cascade Lodge, and were on our way south, but I had one last stop stop to make — a place that rendered the most famous vista in the park but one I had yet to visit, Artist’s Point.
I stood transfixed, as if in midair, on the rocky outcropping. The air was cool and still, and the fog, which filled the canyon right to its rim, was a living sculpture, changing moment to moment as the sun pared it away in subtle swaths here and there. I raised my camera for one final picture. No click. I checked the monitor. “Card Full.”
My soul was too. But I wondered. What would I remember in twenty years? Would we really ever be back here as we promised each other we would? Would the boys remember any of this cathedral of nature, or merely the details of the minivan’s backseat and the way the hotel bed felt when they belly-flopped on it?
In the end, those questions mattered little. All that really mattered was that we had spent nine days together, away from our daily life, a moving island unto ourselves. That is the sacred essence of the family vacation.
That and buffalo chips.