It's hard to know where to begin.... As I headed south from North Dakota, driving through the murky haze of the forest fires as I made my way to Billings, Montana then continuing to Wyoming, I really had know idea of what to expect from a national park that is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. I choose my entry at the East Gate that led me from Cody, WY through both the Buffalo Bill Cody and the Shoshone National Forests, with the views I was seeing there, Yellowstone was going to have to pale in comparison. The smokey haze I had driven through to get here became ever more real as I wound my way through the east side of the park through forest that had been victim to fire years ago, some of which was making a feeble comeback. Big concerns were distracting me as I contemplated the dire affects of global warming we are experiencing this minute - Montana forest fires, Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Hurricane Irma about to bombard the Florida coast as I climbed and climbed to the heart of Yellowstone which sits right around 8,000 ft. (before you start to hike or climb! - yes, adjusting to the altitude was a real thing on the first day) Yellowstone is, in fact, an active super volcano which is why it is a super center of geothermal activity and geographical features in addition to the natural beauty and abundant wildlife. After having been travelling at a breakneck pace and putting thousands of miles behind me since I left Vermont, I was very glad to slow down and set up at my campsite knowing I wasn't leaving the park for the next 3.5 days! Sure, almost 4 days seems like a long time, but not in relation to the magnitude of this park and the distance one has to travel to see each thing. It could easily become a mad dash to tick off all the check boxes of "things I saw", but that is not my intention here and not how I wanted to approach Yellowstone. Instead, I took some time to put my feet in Lake Yellowstone (a stone's throw from my tent site) and decide what was important for ME to see, and then see those things well!
My first impressions of this park in comparison to my past park experiences is that this is the Disney World of national parks! As the first and foremost national park established in 1879, with not only the largest acreage, but also the largest attendance of any park, it needs that kind of infrastructure to handle the enmity of the situation. That being said, I don't mean it as a criticism at all, Disney does what they do exceptionally well and so does Yellowstone....it is just a different park experience including multi-tiers of lodging, dining, shopping, viewing, and experiencing of the park features. Like Disney, my first impressions of the crowd here was the same sweaty, frantic mess you often run across at Magic Kingdom - running from spot to spot with camera, binoculars, stroller, back packs, and stuffed bison in tow to take a quick pic and "tick the box" that we have seen it, then move on. I immediately knew my mission in addition to painting and sharing about my project on my very small soapbox, I was going to try to get people to slow down...be present and actually experience this amazing place versus document that they were there and got the shirt. After all, they had manage to do the first part, they had physically gotten themselves here, now to be emotionally present (that is a challenge for all of us at times, right?) So, I entered the fold as a camera and sketch book toting tourist making my way from the lake shore, to Hayden Valley (what would become my favorite spot abundant with bison!) to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with its gorges and falls, stopping in turnouts and scenic points along the way...everywhere I went I sought out people or families that seemed on the fast track and struck up a conversation, offered to take the families' photo at the landmark, share about Postcards from the Parks and why I was there...sometimes I even just modeled active looking - not whipping the camera out immediately to claim the spot and move on, but instead just looking, commenting on a little detail of the landscape, or making a sketch. I was incredible how people responded to me. It was as if I could physically see the blood pressure coming down or hear a sigh of relief...maybe its because I live most of my life in a hectic fast pace world I have created for myself as a single mom, artist, teacher, activist, the list goes on...but I could relate to where they were and give them a glimpse at where they could be if they were brave enough to slow it down and experience less in a more fulfilling way :)
Like in most things, when you start to peel back the onion you find there are many diverse layers to be found, the crowds at Yellowstone fit this bill as well. This is "America's Park" after all and unlike the Dakotas it seemed all of the U.S. and most of the world were represented. With this in mind, I started keeping track of license plates and with in one day i had seen plates from 49 of the 50 states (Hawaii was not represented for obvious reasons?) I was however the only car representing the Green Mountain State I could find in my stay in the park, good thing I was there! In addition to the checklist crowd, this group included dedicated birders, wildlife lovers, anglers, hikers, boaters, and total science nerds (they were some of my favorite!) and somehow being the person toting an easel, bag full of paint and what became a very recognizable hat made me not only approachable but a bit of a celebrity :) In my two instances that I properly set up to dig into a long painting, I talked to and shared with people from all over the country and also from as far away as Australia, Japan, China, India, Scotland, and Chile. There was an immediate commonality when they found out what I was about regardless of their politics (and they were diverse), culture, ethnicity, etc... this is a sacred space that needs protecting, cherishing, and better be around for our grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren. Many felt the urgency to come now in fear of it being something taken away, while others wanted to show there support to the NPS with by upping attendence......out of sight, out of mind is a dangerous thing and if you haven't been to the parks, its hard to keep fresh in your mind why these are important places to protect. So I painted away, talked even more, and took dozens of pictures with people, some even asking for my autograph (which I tried to oblige without laughing out loud).
Park Rangers in Yellowstone were a bit less accessible than in prior parks, but with the mass crowds, infrastructure and 100's of programs, their jobs are immense. When I took the time to take part in a few ranger led programs, I was gifted with not only friendly and professional, but incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of this scientific jambalaya of a landscape. When you are the one in the crowd asking questions and engaging in conversation, it's easy to continue after the fact conversations with rangers when the program ends...Maybe because we were standing on the crater of an active volcano and all the natural catasrophies happening around the country, conversations after the fact easily flowed to fears and concerns about the effects of rapidly increasing climate change, disregard of scientific evidence, deregulation of EPA standards, and NPS funding. My hat is off to these amazing ambassadors, protectors, and educators of our most important places in our country.
My highlights from Yellowstone were many, but at the top of the list were spending hours in the area of Hayden Valley at different times of day watching the ever present heard of bison grazing, lounge, romp, or just travel through. From any direction the open grassland was breathtaking and my love of bison is now through the roof (I'm sure no one could predict that would happen!). My morning spent at the popular Artist's Point of Lower Falls, which at first I wasn't sure would be a good plan as it is a very high traffic location and iconic viewpoint in the park, but my 4 hours there was beyond words both in working and interacting with the people. Lastly, my encounter with an old codger of a guy and true road warrior that I struck up a conversation with on my last day. He was road worn in his appearance and wise in is eyes...we spent a wonderful half hour watching bison, sharing life stories, hopes and fears, and finding a kinship as both being on a journey - mine maybe just at the beginning stages in his eyes and his nearing the end...when it was time to move on, Rupert handed me his well worn walking stick and said "a gift for your travels...it has lead me down many paths, kept me safe, and helped me seek the truth in life. Now I think it needs to belong to you, use it well." Thank you Rupert, I'll do my best to be worthy of such a gift <3