A Travellerspoint blog

Yellowstone National Park

Releasing the Pressure

We drove through the Northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park at 8:45pm on Friday night (August 19th) and were informed by the park ranger that there were sites available at the Mammoth Hot Springs Campground only five miles away- phew! We raced as fast as the Yellowstone roads would allow to our campground, picked a site and got our camp set up as darkness was completely enveloping the expansive canyon in which we found ourselves. Once we got through the business of setting up camp we took a deep and very relieved breath and glanced up at the night sky for the first time. All I can say is that I have never seen a sky like the one we found ourselves under that night; the Milky Way more visible than I have ever seen it, shooting stars falling through the sky everywhere we looked, satellites racing across the sky and so many stars I felt as if I was in The Planetarium (almost as if the sky was computer generated).

After the kids retired to their respective tents Simon and I lay on our backs on top of the picnic table in our campsite and watched shooting star after shooting star make its way across the night sky. One of them left a beautiful trail as it skidded across the atmosphere and Simon and I were thrilled to have seen it together. After the stress of blindly making our way to Yellowstone trusting that there would be a campsite available when we arrived and rushing to squeeze out every last trace of daylight, the relaxing and magical time we spent conversing with the night sky was absolutely restorative and glorious!

We awakened Saturday morning to an almost blindingly clear blue sky and bright sunshine. It was quite chilly when we emerged from our tents but by 8:00am our campsite was baking hot. The Mammoth Springs campground is located in a large canyon with not a trace of grass or tree so by the time we were taking our tents down at 9:00am we were absolutely baking hot and the dust from the campsite was all over everything (poor Michael had a terrible time remembering not to kick his feet through the dust so our campsite was starting to look like a dust storm had kicked up!) We had originally thought that we would stay in Mammoth, tour the park and then return to our site. However, between the heat and the dust we decided to take our chances and move to a different campsite further into the park.

We also decided that rather than trying to cook breakfast in the baking desert heat we would return to the small town of Gardiner (which is right at the northern entrance to the park) to have breakfast. The kids were quite fractious and uncooperative as we broke down our site and I assumed it was due to both heat and hunger. We pulled away in a great kick of dust and happily made our way to Gardiner where a shady patio, yummy breakfast and fantastic waitress awaited us. As we were waiting for our meals to be delivered I went looking for some maps (I am a complete map junkie!!) and happened into the Chamber of Commerce next door to the restaurant. As luck would have it, the Chamber was staffed that day by a retired Park Ranger by the name of George. George spent ten minutes giving me the inside scoop on the park (things that the guide books don’t tell you) and helped me plan our day. He also asked where we were staying that night and expressed concern that we did not have a campsite booked. Apparently Yellowstone campsites are very hard to come by during the summer months and many campers are forced to camp in the small towns outside the park at night. George asked me where we wanted to stay, immediately picked up the phone and while we were eating breakfast secured us the very last tent site to be had in the park that night!

While we were thoroughly enjoying our breakfast, the two waitresses out on the patio were regaling us with their wildlife stories; “I just don’t like bumping into grizzlies on my way to work...it still scares me when I come face to face with them and I just can’t get used to it.”No kidding!!!!! We heard of mounds of snow into June, bison, bears and elk wandering through town and being sure to look up in trees before walking under them in case of a resident bear- suddenly the raccoons in Hamilton seem so tame!

We left the restaurant in high spirits and were excitedly anticipating the day ahead. I have to tell a story on myself here...I had visions of us in bathing suits sitting in various hot springs throughout the park...little did I know that the hot springs bubble up from the earth at close to 250 degrees Fahrenheit and are so full of minerals they are dangerously toxic. Needless to say, the bathing suits stayed safely in the van!

Our first stop was The Mammoth Hot Springs which is a terraced hot spring. At that point the kids started to argue about, of all things, chewing gum. It became a nasty argument and at that point I asked if we could suspend the arguing for the day so we could happily enjoy the beauty of Yellowstone without it being coloured by conflict. The gum argument was settled as we made our way south through the park toward Old Faithful and along the way we saw bubbling springs, geysers and even bubbling mud springs (awesome!!!) The only drawback to the many springs we stooped at as we made our way to Old Faithful in the south was the scorching heat. It was extremely hot, cloudless and every geyser we stopped at we got hotter, hungrier and more parched.

As we were nearing Old Faithful it was past lunchtime. Between the heat, thirst and hunger it was as if we all simultaneously stopped being able to cope with our vacation, our low level perpetual conflict and the constant family togetherness of the preceding six weeks! One of the best aspects of our holiday has been the fun that Simon and I have had together. Even with six weeks of constant companionship we have had very few tense moments and no blow out fights...until Old Faithful. As we pulled up to the ridiculously over-commercialized geyser and unpacked the food we needed for lunch, it was so hot I thought I was going to fall down right in the parking lot and weep with the heat. As I was digging through the back of our overstuffed van, suddenly all of my frustration channelled directly to my unsuspecting husband and we had a good little fight.

We found some shade, pulled together a fairly decent picnic lunch and went about the business of cooling off and filling our tummies. As we were eating, we could see more and more people gathering at the large viewing area to see Old Faithful erupt so we figured we had better get down there as it only goes off every 40-90 minutes and we didn’t want to miss the spectacle. We sent the kids closer to the huge viewing area and proceeded to throw all the picnic food back in the van...we must have looked like lunatics as we ran back and forth between our picnic spot and the van. However, we were still yipping at each other so we were NOT seeing the humour!

As we walked down to join the kids, Zachary and Michael were pushing and shoving each other so we had yet another Griswold Family moment trying to pull them apart and calm them down enough to wait for the geyser to erupt. As I stood there waiting for the momentous eruption all I could think was that my family seemed to have the same build-up of pressure as Old Faithful. However, unlike the frequent eruptions of the famous geyser, I had no idea how we were going to release the strain from our family system. After about ten minutes of tedious waiting, Old Faithful finally did its thing and we all started wandering back through the hot sunshine to the van. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Michael and Zachary had each other in headlocks and Simon had to physically pull them apart to stop the latest burst of physical conflict...yet another unpleasant scene. Oh dear!

As we pulled away from Old Faithful, Simon announced that he wanted to hit the I-90 and head for home as fast as possible (or leave the family, walk out of the park and catch the first airplane for home). Needless to say, I was fighting back the tears and wondering how I was going to survive the rest of our trip. The rest of our tour through the park was beautiful but pretty sombre. We did see some amazing sights; a huge bison standing right beside the road, a bull elk with massive antlers and a very large crowd of people watching a mama grizzly bear and two cubs feeding on a bison carcass that had washed down the river earlier in the week (George had told us to watch out for it earlier in the day and told us that we would see some amazing wildlife nearby). The bears were too far away to see with the naked eye but there were many generous professional wildlife watchers who were willing to let us have a look through their equipment and we were able to see a massive grizzly bear tearing the flesh off the carcass while her cubs played in the river nearby.

We checked into our absolutely beautiful campsite in the middle of a large forest at around 5pm and set up camp. By that time the pressure in the family was so high I finally erupted and had an all-out bawl which, ironically, brought all three kids rushing to my side to hug me and make me feel better. After my explosion, with much of the tension diffused, Simon cooked chilli for dinner over the propane stove and we all enjoyed a somewhat subdued but peaceful dinner.

After Simon did the dinner dishes at the dishwashing station (the park is very careful about bears) he proposed we all take a short drive back through the park to revisit the site where we had seen the grizzly bears earlier (George had also informed us that early morning and dusk were the best times for wildlife viewing in the park as they were the natural feeing times for the park animals). So we piled back in the van and spent an exhilarating 30 minutes watching three huge grizzly bears feeding. One of the professional wildlife watchers we were speaking with told us that it was likely that the bears were done with the carcass and that the wolves would have moved in by the morning. After having another look through the scopes at the grizzlies, we headed back to the shower station in our campsite so the boys could shower while I filled the coolers with ice (I was planning my shower for the following morning).

By the time we got back to our campsite it was fully dark. While I got PJs ready, Simon and the boys built a beautiful and roaring campfire which we enjoyed until the kids got tired and collapsed into their tents. Simon and I sat by the fire feeling emotionally bruised from the long day. We talked about the job we were doing as parents and wondered at our proficiency. Between the long day, the big cry and the prolonged emotional strain I was completely exhausted and retired to my tent with Michael shortly after 10:00pm. Before going to bed Simon proposed getting up at the crack of dawn to visit the grizzly bear site to see if the wolves had moved in and we all agreed that was a great idea.

I had the best sleep I had had in many nights and 6:30am rolled around far too soon. However, the pull of the park at dawn was too compelling to resist. By the time I was done in the wash house Simon had all three kids in the van waiting for me and we set out into the quiet park. We were no more than a quarter of a mile from our campsite when we saw a huge bison right beside the road having its breakfast. Further along the road were huge herds of bison and the grizzlies still in residence when we arrived at the bear site...not a wolf in site but we still loved watching the bears.

We returned to our campsite and I had a shower while Si and the boys had breakfast. We had our campsite packed up in record time and after driving through even more exquisite scenery and wildlife, we drove through the eastern gate of Yellowstone National Park by noon into a small town called Cooke City. We filled up with gas, bought the kids some gum and headed into The Bear Tooth Pass which is a stunningly scenic drive just east of Yellowstone which winds through the mountains on the border between both Wyoming and Montana and reaches elevations of up to 12,600 feet.

Just before we left Yellowstone last Sunday morning, Simon and the boys visited a new multimillion dollar exhibit about all the hydrothermal features of Yellowstone. What Simon discovered that morning is that over one third of the park is actually a caldera (the crater created at the top of a volcano) which was created by a massive eruption which covered most of North America with ash millions of years ago. And because Yellowstone really is just one huge volcano, there are more hydrothermal features in Yellowstone than on the rest of the planet combined.

As Simon was relaying all this intriguing information to me (that we had actually slept two nights inside a volcano!!!), suddenly Yellowstone became a beautiful metaphor for the pressure that had been in our family system. We are five beautiful, complex and unpredictable beings with our own kind of hot magma at our core. And, just like any volcano on the planet, that magma can push its way up to the surface and erupt at any moment to be a massive eruption or a small bubbling just at the surface. Regardless, every so often the build up of pressure has to be released.

As we wound our way up Bear Tooth Pass with our very own massive eruption behind us, I could feel that the pressure had eased and we were once more a cohesive system. The quiet and expansive grandeur of our surroundings way up at 12,600 feet allowed me to stand way back and marvel at the fact that even in all our hot unpredictability we can still come together for seven weeks of travel with very few colossal eruptions.

And truly, there is nowhere else on the planet that could have held our most significant release of pressure this summer like Yellowstone National Park!

Posted by simonge 10:11 Archived in Canada

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