I regret that I didn’t do Yellowstone with a friend. Not because I was lonely (there is no chance of that there) but because we would have exchanged knowing looks for the rest of our lives and whispered ‘This is Yellowstone all over again’. We would do this whenever someone was rabbiting on about something nobody else cared about at a completely inappropriate moment, forcing everyone to politely smile and listen all whilst awkwardly knowing that a social faux pas was taking place. You see instead of doing my usual solo driving I decided to take a day tour to Yellowstone and that meant the presence of other humans that were not of my choosing.
I elected to do a tour because I knew I would benefit from the guide’s interpretive talks. Yellowstone is a hugely significant area in terms of geology and biology. I wasn’t going to be able to give myself a crash course before I went there and I didn’t want to miss out on anything important. So handing the reigns over to someone else for the day seemed like a good plan. Further to that, later this year I’m going to spend an entire 6-weeks traveling through Africa with another much larger group of humans not of my choosing, so this seemed like a good way to test out my patience and tolerance.
The tour guide picked me up at about 7am in Cody, Wyoming and I found two other lovely older American couples already on board, one each from Tennessee and Texas. We all got on well and I enjoyed listening to the guide tell us all about Buffalo Bill who is closely connected to this town. We stopped just outside Cody to pick up another couple at an RV Park who were from New York State.
The drive into Yellowstone from Cody is far more diverse than I expected. Cody is in a desert-like setting and Yellowstone is forested, but somehow I expected to climb up a mountain and instantly be in forest. Yet the drive took us through canyons surrounded by wonderful rock formations. Whilst not as splendid as places like Utah they were still impressive, particularly with the early-morning sun casting shadows in all the right places.
The three couples in the back were getting to know each other during this drive, occasionally involving me and most of us would stop talking whenever the guide had something to tell us. However I began to notice that Mrs Texas and Mr New York would just keep talking no matter how many times the guide tried to subtly indicate that he needed to talk. That was when I got a sinking feeling that perhaps the day wasn’t going to go as well as I’d hoped.
We entered the actual National Park and drove to our first stop to get a great view over Yellowstone Lake and to look for the first of the resident bears that were to elude us for the rest of the day. We were to spend our time in Yellowstone primarily focussed on the caldera where you can see a huge and varied amount of geothermal activity generated by this super volcano. It didn’t take long to see to see a volcanic fumarole, basically steam coming from the ground, and it marked the first of many incredible geothermal features we would get close to.
As we approached the parking area the guide asked if everyone was ok with a little bit of walking every now and then to get us to some of the places he wanted us to see. What resulted was a deafening chorus of various American accents all vying for attention at once and all I could make out was things like ‘my knees’, ‘my heart’, ‘my feet’. Every single person on that mini-bus apart from myself and the guide had a serious health issue yet they were all under 70, of a healthy weight and miraculously managing to drive themselves around the US. So the short of it was that there was to be very little walking. The guide nervously glanced my way to see if I was going to want the opposite so I let him off the hook by saying that as long as we saw some great scenery it was fine by me. At the end of the day how was he supposed to handle it if one person wanted to do a few 30-minute hikes and the others didn’t? So I had to go with the group and prefer not to think about what I may have missed.
We continued our drive around the lake and began to get into the heart of Yellowstone. It is no doubt a beautiful place but there are plenty of places in America where you can go to see lovely mountains, forests, rivers, waterfalls and canyons. There are two things that make Yellowstone unique in my eyes; the sheer volume and diversity of geothermal activity you can witness right from the road (thank god because we sure as hell weren’t walking anywhere) and the wildlife.
On my visit I only got to see bison and a lone elk, however I understand that this is not normal. Numerous people I’ve spoken to who have visited said they saw bears and sometimes even wolves that have been successfully reintroduced. Although I was disappointed not to see either it was still wonderful to see bison in such huge numbers and to experience Yellowstone’s famed ‘bison jams’.
As we drove around the lake stopping at canyons, waterfalls, mud pools and geysers, the talk in the back of the van centered around illnesses and the various drugs being taken for them along with their extensive side effects and what other drugs a person should take to counteract said side effects. Americans tend to be incredibly well versed in pharmaceutical drugs because America is the most overmedicated nation on the planet. It really is quite unbelievable. If you were to investigate the medicine cabinet of a moderately wealthy and seemingly healthy middle class couple you’d probably find enough different types of medication in high enough quantities to cure a small African village of pretty much everything.
The upshot for my tour was that the guide couldn’t get a word in. He was a lovely, polite man who’d only been on the job for a few weeks and my patience was staring to wear thin because I wanted to hear what he had to say, but also because I could see how much he was struggling to get through the day with these people. As the only solo traveller I was sat up front with him so I turned and said quietly yet firmly ‘just talk louder and if they talk louder keep talking even louder. Even if you have to yell at them just keep raising your voice and they will eventually shut the hell up’. He blushed and laughed then gave it a shot, but being a nice man from rural Wisconsin he just couldn’t bring himself to yell at them and it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Some people just lack manners.
We continued around the Southern Loop Road, stopping every 10-minutes or so to explore a mud pool or a large fumarole and the next drama was that they suddenly, in unison, couldn’t breathe. ‘Oh my god I can’t breathe’ ‘I can’t walk any further (said 5 steps from van), I’m out of breath’ ‘My mouth is dry!’. Can I just remind you that these walking, talking, slim people were in their early-60’s and not their late 90’s? I was a little breathless and thirsty too because we were at an elevation of about 8,000 ft. That is a fairly high altitude for regular people who live at lower elevations as they all did. It is very normal to feel a little light headed for the first 24-hours or so and to also notice you are a bit short of breath. You might even get some headaches too. I explained this to my fellow tourists, as did our guide. All they needed to do was drink plenty of water and be sure they were inhaling and exhaling nice and deeply. But they were having none of it. Several of them declared it was a side effect of their various medications and/or illnesses and would not be swayed. And even though most of them were already taking a toilet break literally every 20-minutes, they wouldn’t drink any water in case it made them pee. It took a lot of self control for me to not scream ‘How could you possibly pee any more than you already are?’ Even more frustrating was that none of them had water with them and the only thing I saw anyone drink was diet soda. For people who were so concerned about their health they really weren’t all that concerned about their health.
The guide found us a fabulous and mercifully quiet lunch spot and I took less than 30-seconds to find a peaceful place on my own by a beautiful river. The general crowding at each stop we made along with having to supress my emotions around my fellow passengers was getting to me. I have a bit of a bear phobia so I never thought I’d find myself seeking solitude in Yellowstone National Park, the site of at least one fatal bear attack every year or so, letalone whilst eating a bear-tempting sandwich. But in all honesty the idea of fighting off an angry bear was preferable to listening to one more person saying they couldn’t breathe or walk or sit or stand or do pretty much anything other than talk non-stop. I find it extremely difficult to talk when I can’t breathe as I think most people do. I also find it difficult to worry about things like peeing when I can’t breathe. These people were walking-talking miracles of suffocation.
As I left my blissful riverside solitude I reminded myself of what was coming in Africa and talked myself into being more tolerant of my fellow travellers. We headed off to see some absolutely incredible geothermal areas and I am proud to say that I did manage to leave my frustrations at the river. These were areas of boiling mud, acid water and innocent looking ground that would cave in instantly should you step on it and deliver you to certain death by boiling or burning. Just a few weeks before my visit a young man decided to walk off a path and slipped into a spring. They didn’t even bother with recovering his body as there wouldn’t have been anything left due to the acidity of the water.
The roads and viewing areas were getting more and more crowded as the day wore on. I gave up on a lot of photos as there was no way to take a shot without people in it. So when the guide announced that we were heading to Old Faithful to watch that famous geyser burst into life, I have to admit I wasn’t all that enthused. I imagined thousands of people crowded around this lone geyser waiting for it to blow then spending the next few seconds furiously clicking and filming whilst it did, before everyone rushed off to their cars to create a huge traffic jam. And that is exactly what happened. The only difference was that our guide knew a secret place to park so we didn’t get caught in the jam.
As we embarked on the long and beautiful drive back to Cody a couple of gems occurred that I want to share on this blog because for all the travel that we do or want to do in order to understand our world, the fact is that humans are the most perplexing things on our planet. And not the exotic far flung foreign ones in the Amazon rain forest or the African savannah either. Usually it is the person next door that you can never quite figure out.
Yellowstone is frequently affected by forest fires. Whilst these are devastating they are in fact a very natural and very important part of the ecosystem. As we were driving through one of these burned out tracts of forest the guide had been trying to tell us about how they start, how intense they get and so on all whilst Mr New York in the back row was talking extensively about how he fuels the furnace that heats his house in winter. I’d like to tell you there is some reasoning or connection there but there wasn’t. It just happened that he was in the middle of one of his painfully long and embarrassingly irrelevant monologues when we passed through this area.
The guide was focussing on his work and hadn’t been listening to Mr New York so in a vain attempt to educate us he loudly asked ‘Does anyone know what makes these wildfires so hot and uncontrollable?’. There was a short silence whilst we all mulled it over before Mr New York says ‘well, I get the wood in summer and leave it to dry on the porch, then I strip the bark off and just stick it in the furnace. Fires the place all damn winter.’ Sometimes you just can’t cringe hard enough. But It got worse…
Mr & Mrs Tennessee were very nice and I think they had only been engaging in the constant moaning about their health to be polite. Mr Tennessee was a man of few words but his wife was more outgoing. I said something to him that he completely misunderstood and I can’t remember what it was but we were both having a good belly laugh about it. I thought my accent was to blame so I joked that 100% of Americans can only understand 25% of what I say to which his wife said that his hearing got ruined due to all the shelling he went through in Vietnam. Before I had a chance to process that someone else asked him about it and he very shyly said that he did three tours starting in 1967 then confirmed that was why he had problems hearing at certain pitches.
All of us were slowly soaking in the timeline and his loss of hearing because it meant that he probably lived through a lot of the really bad stuff that happened in the Vietnam War. All of us except Mr New York who yelled out ‘You a vet? Me too! Served in the Air Force starting in ’63. Stayed in until I heard about the Tet Offensive’ Mr Tennessee quietly says ‘You were smart, wouldn’t wish Tet on anyone’ which Mr New York ignores and laughingly continues ‘I heard from other guys that Tet was a shit show and my five years were up. They asked me to volunteer but there was no way I was going into that hellhole so I got a discharge before they could send me over there.’ I wasn’t in a position to give Mr Tennessee a hug or to punch Mr New York in the face, so I threw him one of them a sympathetic eye roll and the other a death stare.
It astounds me that people exist with so very little social awareness or consideration for others but they do and it transcends cultures and races. Self-centered idiots are as much a part of our planet as oxygen is. If there is a nuclear war not only will one of them start it but they, along with cockroaches, will probably survive it too. I’m fairly certain that the first human on Mars will be a narcissist with a couple of roaches tucked into their spacesuit. But this wasn’t Yellowstone’s fault, in fact Yellowstone’s magnificence overcame Mr New York and despite all the grim stories I have recounted I actually had a pretty awesome day. If I’d gone alone it would have been less annoying but I would have missed at least half of the things worth seeing and wouldn’t have left nearly as educated.
I feel that I need to finish this post with some kind of moral lesson just because I’ve been so mean about my fellow human beings. I’m afraid that I don’t have a whole heap to offer because it was an utterly bewildering day. All I can say is this; Yellowstone National Park is amazing and there are a lot of annoying asshats on this planet. Try not to be one of them.
Travel Tips: Yellowstone is a huge place offering a lot of different activities such as hiking, biking or just driving the loop roads. There are plenty of special interest options if you are interested in things like geology or conservation. You could spend a whole two weeks there if you wanted and the longer you spend the better chance you have of seeing animals like bears or wolves. My trip was short because I hadn’t booked ahead meaning that staying in the park itself was out of the question and I could barely afford to stay at nearby towns like Cody. If you are planning a trip to Yellowstone then the excellent National Park Service site tells you pretty much everything you need to know and if you can book ahead then do. I only got to do the Southern Loop but if you have 2 days you can drive the entire loop systems, 3 days is preferable. And if you are planning to walk anywhere then don’t forget your bear spray.