Journey to the West, Part 2: Yellowstone National Park

Brief History Lesson?

For those who love history, Yellowstone was first discovered by white people. While remnants of centuries-old material culture can be found in the park and as far away as the Mississippi Valley from hundreds of years ago, it’s unclear where these people possibly could have come from. Maybe the Native Americans even enjoyed and cherished the land as much as we do today. Who knows for sure?

In any case, in 1803 as Napoleon wished to fund his campaign to unify Europe peacefully, he signed off on a small tract of land from French-controlled New Orleans all the way to the Rockies, merely doubling the size of the United States. Wishing to be the first people ever to discover this ridiculous purchase of land, Lewis and Clark set off in 1806 coming close to the modern borders of the park, and a member of the expedition set off to explore a land that he would describe as “fire and brimstone.” He would also encounter nameless peoples. (Their names are the Shoshone, Crow and Nez Perce.)

The place lived on in myth as travelers wrote about its perils. The Civil War delayed further expeditions until 1869, when European Americans realized for the first time that Yellowstone isn’t so much “hellish” as it is “gorgeous.” After decades of ignoble policy with the Native Americans (and more particularly with the Sioux), the government of the United States finally gained full control of Yellowstone and the Black Hills, essentially breaking treaties with the Sioux. But only twice.

This was how the land came into white hands. However you view the origins, it is true that on March 1, 1872 it became the world’s first national park. But, whether you date the park back 11,000 years after Indians wandered across Beringia, hundreds of years ago at the height of the Plains Indians, or 145 years ago when Ulysses S. Grant said so, it has forever captured our imaginations.

Old Faithful still functions like clockwork. The Grand Prismatic Spring is mind-bogglingly stunning. The sulfur vents still reek like rotten eggs, perceptible from crazy distances. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is majestic, the force of the flow of the river demanding your respect. The Lake is pure bliss, snow-capped peaks gazing down at you from dozens of miles away in the Grand Tetons. Cruising through the park, I even got to see a bald eagle for the first time, perched up in his nest overlooking a gorge.

I must repeat, however, that the Lamar Valley (where we stayed) was easily the most gorgeous spot in the park. Vast valleys, an expanse of green and Crayola blue skies were the backdrop to bison and pronghorns.  Lucky individuals sometimes get to see wolves, elk and moose in these parts – luck certainly plays a huge part in adventures like these.

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Grand Prismatic Spring

Random Happenings

So the first few times we saw bison were truly awe-inspiring. These huge creatures that roamed the Great Plains were hunted to near extinction (in small part by the Native Americans out of necessity, but primarily by the government out of malevolence) now roam in abundance throughout the park. When they walk right up next to the car, it’s a somewhat terrifying sight at first; a foot away is the head of an animal who could OHKO me. They are truly legendary animals and played an instrumental role in the history of Plains Indians.

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On morning in the park stopping for coffee, I noticed a little booth. In front was an enormous, yellow foldable poster board, as you’d see from a fifth-grade social studies assignment. Scattered across the setup was information about the buffalo in size 8 font, with a word count rivalling War and Peace. Given the choice of reading this behemoth or listening to the screaming man at eight in the morning, I elected to give him my mostly undivided attention. (The last sliver of attention thought about ditching him altogether.)

He spoke about his first amendment right to deliver this speech, to be in the park at all. He preached about freedom for buffalo. He informed that cattle ranchers have unchecked powers in these parts, that they don’t want cattle to intermingle with bison for fear of harming their herds. He ranted that buffalo deserve to have the liberty to expand past the arbitrary boundaries of the national park, that we are cruelly limiting their populations. He pleaded with us to sign the petition – I left in simple ignorance.

While I feel for our buffalo friends, I am not truly informed enough to commit to a side in this Bovine Civil War. I will say that if there is truly no threat to cattle, then we should let the bison roam free. And in Yellowstone, that’s precisely what they do. Because of the two-lane highways, their free range movements even cause log jams on the roads. One of our days in the park, while photographing them, we realized that we were moving unbelievably slow. This was some of the worst traffic I’d ever experienced on such a small stretch of road, anywhere.

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As we reached a small valley and looked out, we saw that an enormous herd of buffalo were conducting their normal buffalo routines. Eating. Walking. And rolling around on their backs trying to rid themselves of their winter coats. Some even took to the Grand Loop Road, meaning cars were backed up for 30+ minutes over a couple hundred yards. Spending half an hour doing nothing in one of the most beautiful places usually isn’t the worst thing in the world; it can be, though, when an impending storm threatens your friend fly fishing in the middle of a meadow.

As we were driving back, we noticed from the northeast dense, charcoal-colored rain clouds, and sheets of rain unleashed with menace. Winds buffeted and the temperature dropped. Tommy decided to go fly fishing for the day, and with no cell signal in the park, we picked Soda Butte as the rendezvous point. I raced back to get him as he’d have been soaked and stranded from the thunder and lighting. As we approached the giant rock turned meeting point, we noticed he wasn’t where he should’ve been. Figuring a nice fellow picked him up on the roadside, we got back to the campsite to find he’d done exactly that: hitchhiked.

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~  ~  ~

I will offer one last thing about Yellowstone, but this is about the entire US as a whole – there are so many mainland Chinese coming to visit the US. The 70s and 80s were marked by a great influx of Cantonese immigrants, from Guangdong and Hong Kong. The 90s and early 2000s saw many Hokkien/Fukiense/Fujianese. But in the last 5 years or so, loads and loads of mainlanders from every province have made their way stateside to study, to live, to purchase real estate. So the language of Chinese immigrants today is increasingly Mandarin, and you can hear it everywhere. I noticed loads of Mandarin in NYC, even Springfield, Mass and hiking on mountains in New Hampshire. But the first time I really made note of it was here in Yellowstone.

Trains of tour buses carrying Chinese. Teenagers hitchhiking in the park, carrying signs for where they needed to go. Guided tours in every imaginable touristy spot. This is a cool thing, as many young Chinese say one of their goals is simply to travel, see the world; this was unimaginable for the greater population even just a decade back. However, when you travel in groups like that, you represent your country for better or worse. When obnoxious Americans (does that include me?) go backpacking through Asia or Europe, they send a message to the locals. (Usually reinforcing a message…)

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With that in mind, some of the most egregious littering came in Yellowstone. I heard a couple Chinese in front of me going on about how beautiful the park is, simultaneously throwing wrappers on the ground. This is one of the most infuriating acts in my eyes. It took a lot out of me not to freak out, but instead I simply picked up the trash and disposed of it in the trash can not 100 yards away. Every people litters, so I figured it might be best to acknowledge that and just go on enjoying the park.

Please, for the love of God, don’t litter. It’s the most selfish of acts. Please just…do not.

 

Leaving Yellowstone

The national park is genuinely awe-inspiring. It was tough to leave it after only three days, but fortunately the drive out of the park into Montana was equally as stunning. We left heading east to the Badlands, by way of Billings, MT and I-90. As we left the Lamar Valley, the surrounding areas were essentially an extension of that. We left the park at a reasonably high altitude with mostly hot weather. As we drove northeast, we ascended higher and higher until the temperature cooled 20+ degrees and the peaks became snowier and snowier. It felt like the earth could go no higher and a bar owner agreed who aptly named his place Top of the World.

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We descended down the opposite side of the range, through an endless series of switchback roads until we entered Red Lodge, Montana. This was a place that at least two-thirds of our party absolutely did not belong. That weekend was a motorcycle rally, and I was probably the smallest person in that town. I would’ve lasted longer in the octagon with McGregor than in a Red Lodge bar. I need to start lifting and riding motorcycles. Probably up my leather jacket game, too.

As we moved on from Billings, we entered into Crow Country and so began again a drive of nothingness. We did notice somethingness in the way of oil wells every so often, and realized the oil industry is definitely alive and well. We continued on until darkness and weariness set in, finding shelter at the Budget Inn in Gillette, Wyoming. Normally this would be a cheap abode, but another motorcycle rally here brought the price into triple digits. We forked over the money, tossed our bags into the room and headed out to find a nightcap.

We came upon the quaint Fireside Bar and Lounge, quaint in name only. No mistakes about it, it was a dive. But I revel in dives, so that is a term of endearment, not chastisement. Us two cosmopolitan fellows perhaps didn’t belong there, though. Maybe it was the Cleveland Indians shirt Tommy was wearing. (Try not to throw on such apparel in this part of the country?) Maybe it was the cuff on my khaki shorts. Maybe it was the fact I was a couple stones lighter than everyone there. In any case, more than a few looks were cast our way, albeit likely out of intrigue, not hatred. They may have ended up dancing country with us had we endeavored to stay a few hours. I have no idea, because we simply wanted roadies to take to the hotel. Luckily in Wyoming, the liquor stores are attached to the bars.

We watched as the bartender walked next door, through the connecting 7×10 foot threshold, throw a case of Mike’s Hard on the counter as it was immediately rung up and brought back to the bar. We, on the other hand, were looking for something simple. Something tasty that would knock us to sleep. 40s of Bud Light were apparently the answer, and hit the hay we did.

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So long, Yellowstone!

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