You know that person you pass on the street on your way to work, or the person who walks their dog by your house sometimes? The kind of person you don’t know, have never talked to, but you’ve seen them a few times? You recognize them, maybe even wave to them, but you’re not even acquaintances, just strangers in passing? That’s me and Yellowstone. We’ve been passing each other for years, but have never really gotten to know each other.
My first visit was in 2006, the day before I moved to Utah. I’d been living in Jackson for the summer, and somehow had never been to Yellowstone, despite it being only 60 miles away. With less than 24 hours to go before I was leaving the state, it was high-time for a visit. Unfortunately, I didn’t head out until afternoon, so it ended up being a quick evening jaunt seeing a few of the sights at dusk. It was September, so the crowds weren’t terrible, but with an impending move and consequent break-up drawing near, emotions were running high. It was a melancholy trip, and I wasn’t paying much attention to the sights, just the company I shared.
Seven years later, I passed her again. Yellowstone, that is. I was six months pregnant and Jim and I were driving home from visiting my parents (in the Black Hills) and his brother (in Sheridan, Wyoming). We decided to take the long way home across the top of Wyoming, and then cut down through Yellowstone. It was again essentially a quick passing trip through the park, taking in as much as we could in just a few hours. We drove in from east side, through Cody, and out through West Yellowstone, Montana. The east side was high and rocky, and different from what I’d seen on my visit seven years earlier. We stopped at a few places along Yellowstone Lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Old Faithful. The tourists (I suppose us included) were out in full swing, and we vowed to come back out of season. It honestly felt like an amusement park. I couldn’t get to know her with so many other people in the room.
I never wanted to go back during the summer, but when I found out my friend Amanda would be running the Yellowstone Half Marathon, I didn’t care how busy the park would be. We would go to Yellowstone! We originally planned to do much more there, including camping, but when we got a free cabin in Idaho, it kept us closer to Grand Teton instead (see earlier post). We ended up, yet again, spending only half a day in Yellowstone (and mostly in the car). I hate to drive through parks like this, but I will say this trip was totally worth it, because a few hours in Yellowstone with Amanda is better than none.
Amanda and I have been friends since 2004, when we were both photographers at our college newspaper. We hadn’t seen each other since my wedding in 2011, but our friendship is the kind that we could probably go four years without even talking and pick up just where we left off. We actually don’t talk very often, just email each other every now and again, these huge, long emails we’ve dubbed “Christmas emails” (because reading them is like waking up on Christmas morning), filled with all the juicy and mundane details of life. And we’ve been doing that for ten years. We’ve joked that we should someday compile a book of our emails, as they’re hilarious and show the arcs of life, through all the ups and downs… but we’d be too embarrassed. We don’t hold anything back, and never have. We’ll probably be writing these emails until we’re little old ladies. Some friends get coffee together for 40 years. We write emails. Often inappropriate ones.
The race started at 8 a.m. in West Yellowstone (no races are actually allowed in any national parks for obvious reasons), and Amanda was anticipating a 2 hour and 30 minute finish. Since we were driving 90 minutes from our cabin in Idaho up to West Yellowstone, we planned to meet her at the finish line. Her parents would also be there, and I was hoping I could find them, but it ended up being much too crowded to look for anymore. We made a sign to cheer on Amanda and her running buddy, Lauren, and staked ourselves out near the end of the course.
I don’t race, or go to races, but I always thought that signs were a thing. As soon as I found out about Amanda running this race, I knew I’d be bringing one. Something with an inside joke that only she would understand. Races are full of hand-written signs, cheering on loved ones, right? Apparently not. Mine was the only one. Literally. The ONLY one. Thousands of people, and I am the only one holding a damn sign. I loved it.
After a while, I began to wonder if we could have missed her. No way, I thought. She’s a flatlander living in Massachusetts… if anything, her time running at elevation would be longer. Finally, I think I spot her. Squinting at first, I point at her like an idiot. Is that her? I think that’s her! It’s her. She sees the sign. “HA, I LOVE IT!” she yells, and I yell back that I’ll come find her, as her and Lauren run to the finish line. She wasn’t the only one who loved the sign. Quite a few other runners came up to me and asked if they could steal my sign for a photo. Weirdos.
After the race, we hung out with Amanda’s parents at their hotel as Amanda and Lauren showered and recuperated from the race. We all got lunch, and then were finally ready to journey into the park. As they were all heading up to Bozeman that night to fly home the next morning, and Jim and I would be heading back down to our cabin in Idaho, we didn’t have a ton of time to hang out, but Amanda and Lauren rode in our car so we’d be able to spend more time together. The lines to get into the park were absurd, and once we were in, it wasn’t long (less than a mile) before traffic slowed to a standstill because an RV hadn’t taken a turn wide enough and had fallen halfway into a ditch. Sigh.
Amanda, her parents, and Lauren had explored Yellowstone a bit the day before, so the only area we all really cared to see right now was the Mammoth area up north. Before heading up there though, we decided to go see the blazing colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring. I’d stopped here during that 2006 visit, but it wasn’t busy back then (probably because it was September). This time, it was insane. Like, “I never want to come to another national park again” busy. Selfie sticks were everywhere, and I couldn’t help but laugh and cry a little as I saw one girl by herself looking all mopey and bored, then she held up her selfie stick, put on a huge split-second grin as she snapped a photo, and then went right back to sullen. Sigh.
After walking the boardwalk, we were actually thrilled to escape the zoo and be back in the car. We started the drive up toward Mammoth, and although it was slow (there was road construction), it was a beautiful drive and was so much fun hanging out with Amanda (even if we were just sitting in the car). An hour and a half later, we arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, but it was already getting so late and none of us were very into it. We saw some really big, yellow snakes, wandered some more boardwalks, and decided to just head back down to our cars to snack and say goodbye. However, we ended up hanging out in the parking lot for another hour, practically tail-gaiting, eating food, drinking beer, and bringing random strangers into our hilarious conversations. Amanda’s parents are just as much fun to hang out with as she is, so it was really an awesome time. We all had to hit the road though… them to Bozeman, and Jim and I back to the cabin, but via another (longer) loop in the park that we hadn’t driven before. It sucks that our time with Amanda was so brief, but she’ll be coming out to Salt Lake to visit in September, so the quick trip will tide us over.
Back in the car, I found that the whole area around Mammoth made me appreciate Yellowstone a bit more. To be honest, I’ve never found Yellowstone particularly appealing. Maybe it’s because I’ve only done these quick tourist trips, the crowds are ridiculous, people don’t know how to drive, it smells bad (sulphur!), and the scenery isn’t all that great. But that northern area of the park was pretty epic, and dare I say it?… made me eager to come back.
Then something else crazy happened. Not even 10 minutes into our drive and we saw a bear cub in a tree. I’ve lived in the mountain west for nearly 10 years, and had never actually seen a bear. While this may count as my first official bear sighting, I’m not sure I count it. Sure, I could see the brown blob on top of a tree, but if I didn’t know what it was or where to look, I’d have never seen it or known what it was. The lack of bear sightings in my life is somewhat tragic (though also somewhat appreciated). When I lived in Park City, not only did I hike a trail behind my house every damn day that a DWR employee told me definitely had bears hiding in it, but one time I drove right by a bear in my neighborhood without noticing. A zillion people and cops were pulled over on the side of the road, and for some reason I thought they were all gawking at a drug bust. I scoffed and shook my head at this spectator spectacle as I drove by and pulled into my garage (this was a block from my house). The next morning, I see the photos of a bear wandering this field and the hallways of an apartment complex right there on the front page of the newspaper (the newspaper that I was the photographer at). Oh yeah, and I had my long lens on my camera, sitting right there on the passenger seat as I drove by. Sigh.
Okay, so back to Yellowstone. I saw a bear. Sort of. We continued our drive, heading over 8,878-foot Dunraven Pass, eyeing some peaks we want to come back and hike. I will definitely be coming back to this area of the park… no people, amazing scenery, no sulphuric farts of the Earth. Running low on daylight, we ended up taking a shorter loop back over to West Yellowstone, then out of the park and back down to the cabin in Idaho. We wanted to do a bigger loop in the park, driving through Hayden Valley (which is famous for seeing wildlife), but we simply wouldn’t have time. Even as it was, we didn’t get back to our cabin until 10pm. Just days away from the summer solstice, we miraculously still had an ounce of light left.
We still don’t really know each other, but I have a newfound appreciation for Yellowstone. Strangers in passing, who’ve passed each other a few times, and maybe now just said, “Hi there.” I look forward to bumping into her a bit more, becoming acquaintances, and maybe someday, good friends. Good friends like Amanda and I. We don’t see each other often, but we don’t need to. When we do, we make it count.