Providence in Yellowstone

It was day two in Yellowstone National Park. I slept soundly in my tent, despite the campground being full, crowded, and not having much privacy at all. 

On my morning stroll to the bathroom I saw a buffalo walking between two campsites right alongside the picnic table and a RV. I hadn’t expected it. I suppose he wanted to wish all us visitors a “good morning.” It reminded me of one morning in Rocky Mountain National Park when an elk was grazing right alongside a camper’s tent.

It was a cold and overcast morning. Wet clouds hung low overhead. I quickly disassembled my tent and threw it into the backseat of the car. I could only reserve this campsite for one night. Yellowstone in the summer is an extremely busy place. The next two nights I’d camp at the Grant Village Campground. Once in my car, I had some breakfast from my stash of dried foods and began my day’s itinerary as spelled out in my book. My first stop was at the Fishing Bridge. This long century-old log pole bridge stretched over the Yellowstone River just as it forms and flows northward from Yellowstone Lake. Pine trees stand snug at the water’s edge and some inlets give way to marsh. It was a quiet and peaceful place, especially at this time in the morning. I strolled quietly and contemplatively. Then a big bus came to a stop, hissed, opened its doors and a swarm of Chinese tourists poured onto the bridge, equipped for the misty weather with transparent ponchos and ready to take photograph selfies, nearly each one carrying a selfie-stick. 

More so than any other park, Yellowstone seems to be a favorite among Asian tourists. Tour busses full of these well-equipped tourists are found all over the park. In addition, signs in the bathrooms and outhouses instruct foreign visitors on how to use toilets in the United States; the general store at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has an Asian food isle with a variety of noodles; and restaurants in the park seemingly cater to a certain tourist- namely with the noodle wok. Days prior in Grand Teton National Park, on my guided hike around Swan Lake, the Ranger brought this up, explaining how the influx of Chinese tourists is because of the current strong middle class in China. I also think it just must be in particular fashion in China to visit U.S. National Parks. Tour companies are designed for and are catering to this demographic, probably making quite a wealth for themselves. 

When I left the Fishing Bridge I proceeded Northward and drove a short distance to the Mud Volcano. On my way I saw another buffalo trailing the road. At the Mud Volcano area there was a short boardwalk around gurgling and burping mud pots of highly acidic water that erodes the volcanic rock and turns it into a sludgy thick ooze. The landscape here was very soupy with water sitting, boiling, slowly flowing, and burping up from the ground all around. The most impressive feature here was the Dragon’s Mouth. A hole in an embankment by a thermal pool hissed and gurgled as it constantly let out steam, resembling just what it’s title suggests. 

After making another couple brief stops I arrived at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at Artist’s Point. There were crowds of Mandrian speaking tourists, posing in front of the viewspots once again with their selfie sticks. Behind them was one of the most magnificent views in the National Park Service: Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It is incredibly picturesque. A platform juts out at the edge of the canyon, where crumbling yellowstone is on display traveling down to the focal point of the perfectly flowing immensity of the Lower Falls which is so entirely uninhibited. This is one of those marvels of nature which is hard to take in and gain perspective of. The beauty before you is just astounding. You feel almost as if you are trapped in a painting trying to gain your bearings. Although I was surrounded by people, I tuned them out, and my mind and eyes became fixated at the wonder before me. Captivated would be the most appropriate word. All the sounds and clutter around me dispersed, and I was still, calm, and quiet to my perception. What a wonderful piece of artistry- truly striking- not happenstance but designed. 

Then… “Take photo?” asked the tourist in broken English. “Sure,” I replied. When I was done taking the photo I turned behind me to look off the other side of the observation platform to the peculiar display of the canyon walls which slid diagonally down towards the river from a definite abrupt edge of pine treeline. Colors were on strange display here in nature’s own pink and yellow drooping down in rock formation like melted crayons. 

While in the area I escaped onto a trail that followed the ridgeline. At one point it veered into a dark and moist forest, and at the time I thought this might have been a prime bear habitat. All alone with not much experience in bear country, I decided to head back towards the crowds. I  drove over to the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s Trail, where I descended 328 stairs to the base of the Lower Falls. It was cold and wet, and my stay was brief.

My next stop was at the commercial area of the Canyon Village. Sharing a parking-lot was a general store, an outdoor gear shop, a souvenir shop, and the Canyon Lodge, which is not exactly a lodge but a cafeteria. The cafeteria was very nice and newly renovated in a 1960s style. Something also about the design made me think of a lodge. It seemed like I was at a high elevation ski lodge, not that I had ever been to one before, but it gave off that vibe to me. Here there were two lanes, two sections: One they called “American food” and the other “Asian food.” I was surprised no one had thrown a fit about their terminology in this “woke” era. For me it was just fine. I thought most fitting for my visit to Yellowstone was some classic American cuisine. I had a pot roast with smashed potatoes and gravy with mixed vegetables and garlic sauce. I was surprised by the quality of the food- top notch for a National Park- so much so that I’d come back here to eat the following day. 

My first trip to a National Park in my adult life was in the fall of 2014 to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. This was the fall after my summer trip to Disney World. Being a classic Disney fan, the trip was everything I hoped it could be, or “magical” I guess is what they say. I enjoyed hopping from one park to another, moving about from one attraction to another, and taking the buses around to visit the different resorts. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with all it’s different parts, whether the high reaches of Newfound Gap, the scenic valley of Cades Cove, or the hub of the Sugarland, it’s variety is similar to the different parks in Disney World; and all its different features like Alum Cave, Clingmans Dome, Laurel Falls, Charles Bunion, etc. are like all the rides and attractions in Disney World. I remember thinking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Disney World for the nature lover. Not every park is like this. Not all parks have different sections and a plethora of varying attractions, but Yellowstone most certainly does more so than any other park. Yellowstone has an abundance of “attractions”, numerous villages, lodges, and restaurants. It is an enormous theme park. I’d say The Great Smoky Mountains is more like a Disneyland and Yellowstone is Disney World. It’s at a whole different level- or “a whole new world” as they say.  

After having lunch in the Canyon Lodge I proceeded on my journey. I stopped at the Museum of the National Park Ranger between the Canyon Village and Madison by the Gibbon River and Gibbon Falls, which I also admired. I tell my students back in Kentucky jokingly that when I grow up I am going to be a park ranger. I so admire park rangers and think it would be a most intriguing profession. So, without a doubt, a stop at this museum was necessary. The Museum of the National Park Ranger was located in an old building that used to house soldiers back when Yellowstone was patrolled by the U.S. Army in its early days. This museum gave a brief history of the National Park Ranger; showed a re-creation of an early ranger residential quarters; displayed old newspaper articles and photographs; showcased badges which signify different rankings and classifications within the ranger system; and most fascinating to me at the time, displayed a map from 1916 of the United States with all the National Parks labeled. Something on this map jumped right out at me: a number of the National Parks on the map were no more. What happened to them? There was a retired park ranger volunteering to answer questions in the museum. So naturally…

“What happened to these parks on this map that don’t exist anymore.”

He seemed pleased to have a question to answer. His grey mustache bounced up and down as he spoke. His passion for the National Parks was evident. “Well, some were given back to state and local supervision, and others were defaced so much that they lost their cultural value.” I found this to be quite an interesting bit of information. Later, in my days working in Montana, I’d get an original publication of the book Oh Ranger by Horace Albright. In this book there is a map with a number of National Parks and Monuments that also are no more. At Seven Islands State Birding Park in East Tennessee an exhibit on Tennessee State Parks explains how a number of National Park units in Tennessee were redesignated as state parks. 

When media outlets complain of a politician downsizing federal lands, I’ve come to find that really, in many instances, the public land is put back into the hands of state and local municipalities. This detail is left out in reporting as it doesn’t always fit the narrative. Mackinac National Park became Mackinac Island State Park. Lewis and Clark Cavern National Monument became Montana’s first state park, Father Millet Cross National Monument became Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, and the proposed Pioneer National Monument became a series of state parks in Kentucky including Fort Boonesborough State Park, to name a few.

Once done at the museum and with my pleasant chat with the retired ranger, I continued on my journey and down the left side of my day’s loop. The main parkway is like a number “8.” I was on the left side of the lower loop. The upper loop of the “8” I had not seen at all yet and would be reserved for the following day. On my journey on the lower loop I stopped at the Artist’s Paintpots where a number of mudpots, fumaroles, and springs painted lavalike colors across the broken and soupy landscape of delicate earth. A boardwalk guided the tourists among the features. I had plans to stop at the Midway Geyser Basin to see the famous Grand Prismatic Spring. But the traffic was backed up to the road. I decided I’d come back early in the morning.

I proceeded to the bottom of the number “8” on the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone where I had a campsite reserved at the Grant Village Campground. I checked in and set up my tent in the cold misty forest. It was very similar to the campground I stayed in at Grand Teton National Park. The Grant Village Campground provides visitors campsites within little nooks in the forest. It’s a quiet, recommended campground in the park. After setting up camp I went to the general store, which had a small cafe attached to it selling sandwiches and ice cream. I ordered a sandwich. When I held out my debit card to pay, the employee asked to see an ID. 

“Kentucky! We are from Kentucky!” the cashier exclaimed. “My wife and I are from Louisville. We are teachers. We just work the summer here in Yellowstone.”

This is an important moment in my life. My mind flashed back to the waitress in Jackson Lake Lodge talking about how she got a summer job online, and I remembered she wrote me the web address to find summer jobs in National Parks on a napkin. I briefly thought about pursuing it, but I had doubts as a teacher if I would have enough time and the capability to escape from my normal life for such a adventurous summer job. But then this couple were teachers here from my state! They were able to work around the education system in Kentucky to get away for the summer. If they could do it, I could do it! I would do it! They had inspired me. 

Trying to follow in their footsteps, a year later, in the winter, I applied and pursued vigorously the opportunity to work in Yellowstone. I was shot down. They wanted more of a time commitment than what I could offer as a teacher. This didn’t stop me. There had to be a way, for this couple did it. I tried other parks. I tried Big Bend National Park in Texas and Glacier National Park in Montana. I received job offers from both! A privately owned mercantile just outside of Glacier National Park won out. In the summer of 2019 I’d find myself working my first summer in what would become my most favorite place on earth. My heart would get lost in Montana, and my experiences in Montana would be some of the fondest and most meaningful in my life. The people I’d meet in Montana would become some of my most treasured. It was this moment in Yellowstone- this teacher couple from Kentucky- who would put all of this in motion. Coincidence? I think not. Coordinated? Definitely.  

Read the previous entry “Lands Alive: My First Day in Yellowstone” here: Lands Alive: My First Day in Yellowstone – on the verge (joshthehodge.com)

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here: https://www.amazon.com/Canyonlands-adventures-National-Parks-beautiful/dp/1711397873

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