Despite being touristy to a fault, the Yellowstone National Park somehow retains its rugged character. Hoards, I mean hoards, of domestic and international tourists flock to this park to watch Old Faithful spit some water vapor into the air. They come in rented RVs, take cheesy family pictures and complain about shoddy cellphone coverage the entire time they are in the park. Even with the overwhelming annoyance of the seemingly endless flow of tourists, this place stays grounded. I'm not going to lie: Yellowstone National Park was rad.
Before even getting into the ride, something crazy happened on this day. I awaited my two riding partners, Marion and David, at the Village Grill. As I fiddled around on my cellphone (I mean, what else does a bored, young, Millennial do with his free time?), I heard someone say my name. I looked up. There were a maximum of seven people at this campsite who knew my name. As I stared at the figure before me, my mind could not register the features of this unknown person's face. He simply was not one of the seven people stored in my mental cache. After a 5-second-long blank-stare, I exclaimed, "Matthew?!?!"
What the hell was Matthew Klixbull doing here? Matt was the Couch Surfing host who took me in when I passed through Bowling Green, Ohio nearly four months ago! I sprang up out of my chair to give him a hug. What a small world!
He took a seat with me at the table. At first we were a bit unsure what to talk about. I think we were both still in disbelief that we happened to stumble into each other in the middle of a forest in Wyoming. Once we got our minds right, we were intrigued to hear all about each other's experiences since we last met. Since you blog viewers have already heard of mine, I'll just briefly share his. Matt did the running of the Bulls in Spain where he got trampled by these wild animals, now he's doing a week-long hike through the Grand Tetons with a buddy of his. Before his buddy even arrived he managed to encounter a family of six bear cubs in the forest while on his own. Lucky for him, the mother was nowhere to be found. When he told me this, I asked if he took a pic of the cubs. He looked at me with disbelief and responded that he was unable to take a picture because he was fiercely trembling while clutching his bear spray. Had momma-bear been around he would have been in deep trouble. Matt Klixbull seems to find a way to keep things exciting.
After chatting for a half-hour or so we parted ways. It sounded like there was a chance that we may link up on the California coast in a month or so. Once he was gone I was unsure if I had actually seen him or not. Our encounter felt so improbable. Well, if I bump into him in Cali then that will confirm that I actually did see him and wasn't just sitting at a table talking to myself for a half-hour, which, at this point is actually possible.
So David, Marion and I headed out of our campsite in Grant Village around 11:00 am or so. Our destination for the evening, the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, was about 55 miles ahead of us. Given that it was a Saturday in the month of August, we committed to riding in a pack so as to find strength in numbers. The thought of sharing the narrow roadways with distracted tourists operating large vehicles was a bit intimidating.
Our first stop at about mile 15 was Old Faithful. Man, did we have a bad time here. It was the epicenter of tourist activity in Yellowstone Park. You couldn't walk more than 10 feet without having to dodge a tourist. It was David and my first time at this legendary American tourist site, so we felt obliged to watch an eruption of this reliable old geyser.
I approached the seating which surrounded Old Faithful. A semi-circle of seats accommodated hundreds of tourists. Old Faithful isn't actually the biggest geyser in the park, it is just the most predictable. Every 45 minutes it has an eruption. I can attest to it not being the biggest, because as I awaited Old Faithful I noticed some geyser in the distance, perhaps a half-mile away, that was gushing water and steam into the sky. For a second I forgot about all the tourists and was hypnotized by the 60 meter tall plume that came billowing from this basin. Dang, Yellowstone really was an active volcano.
As I awaited Old Faithful I grew nervous. It sure felt like 45 minutes had passed. Perhaps the bickering tourists around me had shortened my attention span, but I didn't think Old Faithful was going to blow. I worried that maybe the old geyser needed a little Viagra to get things started. On a couple of occasions the basin let out an anticlimactic five or six-foot plume of steam. Oh man, I really hoped that wasn't it. Come on Old Faithful, you can do it!
For a solid five minutes, I, along with the throngs of tourists, marveled at the 30-meter tall column of steam that filled our noses with its sulfurous scent. Old Faithful can still git 'er done. While gazing at the spectacle, a mother and her daughter took a seat on the ground in front of me. I guess they had to squeeze in front of me because the woman next to me and her selfie-stick were taking up a good bit of real estate. So, the woman's daughter posed in front of Old Faithful while the woman herself contorted her body to get the perfect angle. It seemed she needed a bit more space to perfect this composition, so, without any acknowledgment of my existence she leaned against my legs. For a good two minutes I didn't even so much as peek at Old Faithful. I just stared at this woman who was now effectively sitting in my lap. Lovely.
Once the geyser settled, Marion and I headed to the lodge for lunch. David had shrewdly grabbed a bite while everyone was gathering around the spectacle. Once Old Faithful fizzled out, it seemed that the entire crowd went straight to the restaurant. The lines were pretty bad. Marion and I spent too much time standing in line, waiting to buy overpriced food.
We bought sandwiches, then relocated to some benches outside. While consuming the mediocre cuisine, it was clear that we all wished to escape this tourist trap. Marion especially wanted out. I believe it was at this point that he uttered the line of the day. Marion turned to David and I, paused, and with the most stern countenance, said, "The only other thing that I want to see in Yellowstone...is the exit sign." I broke out into profuse laughter. I knew exactly where this guy was coming from. Thank you Marion for saying what everyone was thinking. We finished our sandwiches, then got back on our bikes.
The next stop was Grand Prismatic, a multi-colored basin just a few miles North of Old Faithful. Since Marion had already seen the site, and because he was at his wit's end, he chose to ride ahead of David and I as we checked out the attraction. Grand Prismatic was spectacular. I've never seen such vividly-colored water pools in my life. We spent a good 30 minutes here, then saddled up one last time.
At this point I think David and I had about 25 or 30 miles to go before we would arrive at our destination. Having gotten the touristy stuff out of our system, we put our heads down and just rode. Something wasn't right as we approached the Madison campsite. Despite a totally clear sky, our vision to the North was obstructed by some sort of fog or low-lying cloud. As we approached the matter, we realized that we were riding right into forest fires. Yellowstone was on fire! A few miles in David asked me if I was experiencing any discomfort breathing. I was not, though I could certainly smell the char. Perhaps his question wasn't a great sign, but we kept riding anyways.
We weaved through this densely forested route just South of Madison. My mind wandered. Right now I am riding through the cauldron of the world's largest volcano and it is literally going up in smoke. Wow.
David and I turned towards the West at the Madison Junction. Within a few miles we were relieved of the smoke. The fire, or should I say fires, were right next to us, but we were on the windward side of them so the smoke blew away from us. Thank goodness. We made several stops on our way back to turn around and gaze in awe at the huge smoke clouds and violent flames arising from Yellowstone. I suppose that this was how Yellowstone chose to bid us 'adieu'. It wanted to remind us that, despite all the cheesy touristy stuff, Yellowstone was still wild. You don't have to tell me twice, Yellowstone. I received the message loud and clear. You are among the many things which are far greater than me.
So in just a few hours I experienced the grand duality of Yellowstone. On one side, it is the Disneyland of National Parks. It attracts generic tourists from across the world who create long lines, cause congestion, complain about everything and, quite frankly, make you want to go home. But, despite this appearance of order, Yellowstone is also totally out of control. Forest fires break out and completely shut the park down. Hikers stumble into families of grizzly bears and get mauled to death. People take one false step into a geyser basin and boil to death. Yeah, don't let the tourists fool you. Yellowstone is rugged, and it always will be.
That evening we set up camp at a site in the touristy little cowboy town of West Yellowstone. I had finally completed my exodus from Wyoming, among the most challenging states that I had traversed on this journey. I was now in Montana, a place that people had spoken so highly of to me. Clear blue skies to the West and grey smoke-filled skies to the East all faded to black as night approached. With Wyoming in the past, I felt invigorated by the opportunity of a fresh start in a new state. Despite the calamity of Yellowstone's fires just a few miles from me, I peacefully dozed off.