I’d done my fair amount of traveling, in no way exhaustive but reasonably wide-ranging. I’ve been to three continents. I’ve been to a wide swatch of the largest of them all – Asia. I’ve been to Europe, albeit only to the western half. I have a broad enough perspective to know what I do know and what I absolutely do not know. I’ve learned when I can expect to be out of my element and when I am safe to push my boundaries. I’ve been to places where I’m the only English-speaker, and I’ve been in situations where others are the only non-English-speakers. Long and short: I’m somewhat worldly, but leagues south of omniscient.
It even seemed I’d traveled fairly extensively in my own country. East Coast? Fully explored top to bottom. South? I’ve hit Atlanta, New Orleans, Charleston. Mid-West? Spent four wonderful college years there, in Chicago. West? If Portland is “out-there” enough for you. Southwest? Surrounded by the desert and mountains of Phoenix. And the one state beyond categorization – Texas – I’ve even been there, too.
So, when I got a phone call from my four-year college best friend, Tommy, asking if I’d like to go westward bound, I figured I would see some cool spots, knock back a few cold ones and generally have a swell time. I didn’t expect you could learn so much about yourself or your country from a ten-day road trip. I didn’t expect Yellowstone could hold such immense beauty or that the Great Plains could stretch my mind or that revisiting Chicago and Cleveland would reopen my love affair with the Midwest.
I’ve always said that you could live in your own country for a lifetime – make that an infinite amount of lifetimes if you’re one to believe in reincarnation – and still not completely understand your own country. Wherever you stand on the political divide, you couldn’t possibly stand before me the Monday before Election Day and tell me the state of the nation, why people voted one way or another with any great regularity. Sure there were trends, but mostly the media got them wrong. (Yes, Fox and CNN, you are the god**** media. Yes, both of you got it wrong.) They missed vast cross sections of this diverse country of ours. They misread the disdain for Hillary from within her own party. She apparently was numb to humanity, that if you tell thousands of people you’re going to replace their jobs at a rally, well they probably won’t vote for you. They failed to realize that large swaths of the Rust Belt could, indeed, vote.
My point: we don’t even understand our own country and our own people very well, even those who do it for a living. I figured I could probably do some travel to meet new folks in new places and see if I could learn a bit more about the ole US of A.
So, this was my general mindset when Tommy asked me to join up with him. Just for fun, I even invited a Chinese friend along. So with this motley crew assembled, a Chinese who has never been to the US, a fairly liberal Bay Stater and a middle American, proud Ohioan, we headed out West.
As I was coming straight from China, Tommy enjoyed the first leg of his trip hiking in Colorado with some buddies. Driving from Cleveland, he picked up a friend in Kansas City and drove over to the Centennial State. With some college buddies living in Denver, he climbed a 14,000 foot mountain and did some other unimpressive stuff. Definitely not worth writing about
As Shine – the Chinese friend – and I arrived in Denver, the other unimportant actors in this story disappeared. After a brief reunion at dawn, the extras exited the stage. Tommy, Shine and Mikey were headed to Yellowstone. Yee haw?
One of the first things I noticed is immediately obvious to anyone who simply listens to “America the Beautiful,” or visits the US for the first time: this country is just so damn pretty. Some of the West and Midwest is a unique type of “pretty,” as it is also viewed as “nothing.” But Big Sky Country is intense for an East Coaster like myself.
We took I-25 up from Denver and drove for hours through pretty nothingness, aka grasslands. We stopped at the occasional gas station for road trip staples: sunflower seeds, Arizona ice tea and chewing tobacco. One was the lovely Ghost Town C-Store of Casper, Wyoming. A garrulous station employee was kind enough to engage me in conversation. He informed me that the name of the town was actually Ghost Town, but a quick Google search revealed that he was wrong – it’s Casper, WY. But ya know: Ghost Town, Casper, super punny. He also revealed his wandering-soul ways.
Him: “Yeah I’ve lived all over the country. I just don’t like to stay in one place more than a year or two.”
Me: “Ah, is that right? Where have you been?”
Him: “Here, there, everywhere,” he begins, “and also, El Paso.”
Me: “Oh, you lived in El Paso?? That’s awesome. I had a friend who lived there. You like it?”
Him: “Well, if you don’t mind my saying, it was a little too Hispanic for my liking.”
Oh you don’t say! A place named “El Paso” has a bunch of Hispanic folks living there. Funny that. And no I don’t mind since you just gave me material for the drive from Denver to Yellowstone.
After countless cattle ranches whipped by, mile-long trains choo-chooed along, and soaring 50 foot hills impressed in the distance, we finally made it within touching distance of Yellowstone; however, for the first night, we would camp 20 miles outside of the park near-ish Cody, WY. Giant advertisements urged us to visit the Rodeo Capital of the World, but a voice in our heads said no after we realized it was a 40+ minute drive from the campground to the Rodeo. Rodeos demand copious amounts of beer; driving demands stern attention to sobriety. Curse you, better judgment.
We noticed along the drive, and as we approached Yellowstone a sign you never see virtually anywhere in New England. (At least I haven’t.) Smokey the Bear leaned over, his arm around a small spinner. Inside were five colors on a gradient, indicating forest fire conditions for that day. This is especially poignant given what’s going on in California, and considering that a fire broke out a week after we left the park.
Yellowstone National Park
We woke up at 5:45am so we could guarantee a spot in the first-come-first-serve campgrounds within the park. Well, actually Tommy woke up then, and I emerged from the tent 20 minutes later. We drove into the park at 6:30 and the attendant said that not a single campground reported being full. Sweet. And that’s when it hit us: Yellowstone is massive. At 3,468 square miles, it is larger than either Rhode Island or Delaware. The main tourist attractions of the park are connected by a figure 8 of two-lane, highway-ish roads. From the east entrance to the northeast entrance took roughly two hours. Granted it was an absolutely beautiful drive, we anticipated a much shorter one and counted on finding a campground with vacancies much sooner. We did not.
Every single campsite was full. After a 90 minute drive, with great expectations, we continued to arrive at completely full campgrounds. It wasn’t until we drove clear across the park, just miles from Montana that we found one of the last vacancies in the entire park at Pebble Creek Campground. It was probably for the best as we found the area to be the most beautiful Yellowstone had to offer. The Lamar Valley, with its wide valleys, tall peaks and giant herds of buffalo was, without a doubt, the most stunning part of Yellowstone.
One thing that was immediately picked up on by Shine was the utter lack of cell service. If you understand the today’s younger generations in China, it is humorous that this is noteworthy; they virtually require cell service to function. In the US, if you go out into the country, you know full well you are losing service, or it will be shoddy at best. But she brought this up and it made me think. Truly, anywhere I went in China, I had at least average service. Often, the parks way out yonder had better service than in small cities, presumably so people could post their nature selfies.
In any case, there we were. No cell phones. The last campsite. And the gorgeous Lamar Valley waiting to be explored. (Where’s the selfie stick?)
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This is a 4 part series on a road trip out West. Check out the other pieces here.