I spent a month road-tripping through the Rockies at the end of the summer with two very close friends and my girlfriend. It’s pretty tough trying to describe how ridiculously incredible that month ended up being. For one thing, I got to finally hike and attempt some simple scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, which has been a bucket list destination for years, not to mention getting to explore some other incredible public lands for the first time like the Wind Rivers in Wyoming and Zion in Utah. Around halfway through, we stopped for a couple of days in Yellowstone National Park to see some former co-workers and recover before a few days in the Tetons. Yellowstone does not share the impeccably sculpted granite of the Cirque of the Towers or the jaw-dropping dramatic views of Zion’s razor-thin slot canyons. But there’s just something about it that makes it a uniquely special place for me. It was my first national park that I spent any real amount of time in, it’s where I’ve made some of my best friends, not to mention my girlfriend, and it’s the first place that truly impressed upon me the meaning of the literary idea of ‘the sublime’, that elusive, addictive mix of beauty and terror which I’d read about but never really experienced.
Despite its reputation for being over-crowded (which is certainly true at tourist hot spots like Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs), Yellowstone is remarkably deserted once you get out of the car and hit the trails. There’s around a thousand miles of trails in Yellowstone’s backcountry, and I don’t think I’ve even managed a third of that yet. It’s just indescribably vast. There’s no phone lines, no phone signal – once you step off the road, it’s proper wilderness, and with the bison, elk and antelope herds massed in the valleys around you it’s easy to believe it. Yellowstone probably would have been a Romantic poet’s dream. In ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage‘, Byron claimed to live ‘not in myself’ but instead as a ‘portion of that around me’, which is a fairly succinct way to describe being in the backcountry. As Byron later concedes, you become a ‘reluctant’ link in nature’s chain, no longer the advanced industrial conquerer of the wilderness but a willing participant in its world; you are no longer in charge in this place. On our two-day visit last month during the final mile or so of what was supposed to be a relaxed and comfortable run, I turned a corner and was met with the sight of a enormous bison face down in the stream, its throat recently ripped open by what had to have been a large bear. I was forced to turn around and ended up running much further than I had bargained for, arriving back at our car speechless with exhaustion. Yellowstone is anything but tame, and as a native of Great Britain, where our national park policy is too often limited by overcrowding, overdevelopment and the narrow-mindedness of landowners (there’s no such thing as actual ‘public lands’ in the UK in the American sense of the term), this was something I found both frightening and exhilarating.
However, I think the best way of doing Yellowstone justice is by sharing what I wrote on June 14th, 2016, when I returned for my second season at the park after an absence of just under a year.
‘I’m home. It’s taken a while for me to reach this conclusion, but I feel certain of it now. After that final flight into Bozeman and I’d reached my hotel, I dropped my bags, gazed out of the window at the Absarokas, gigantic claws of rock held mid-swipe against that infinite Montana sky, and promptly jumped around my room with all the feverish elated excitement of a 6-year-old on Christmas. On the drive in this morning, small landmarks and details from my last memories of Yellowstone became ever more powerful seeds of anticipation. The red streak of the Devil’s Slide, the paw prints on the carpet leading us to employee check-in, even the insufferable tourists at Mammoth remorselessly photographing every last blade of grass – it was the same feeling of joyful recognition as heading back to my parent’s house for the weekend and seeing the local pub swing around the corner.’
‘Yellowstone. I’m sure it’s become more beautiful since last year. Maybe the Beartooths and the Tetons spoiled me, but I’d mentally filed Yellowstone away as a largely less dramatic place, with far gentler hills. I suppose this still holds true, but even so, those are some proper hills. Hills dwarfing the biggest London high-rises, rolling perpetually into another, stretching onwards, a great green plain peppered with clusters of deep forest, hills whose horizon was broken only by the giant snow-capped peaks of the Absarokas and the Madisons, the natural defences for the lush heart of Yellowstone. Sepulchre Mountain glared down at us as we left Gardiner, easily twice the elevation of Ben Nevis, yet one of the park’s more pedestrian peaks. It was hard to believe that I too had shared that intimidating stare twice the previous year.’
‘And in what felt like no time at all, I was back in the same place where it felt like the world was ending last September, standing alone in the Roosevelt parking lot, weighed down by two packs and a duffel. Walking down beside the line of cabins, I spotted a familiar mane of blond hair.
‘Andersen!’ I yelled. He turned and charged. The breath was knocked out of me as he locked me in a bear hug. Callie was next, then Nate, then Darby, then Chris and Emma, and finally Turner, once his shift had ended. I think it’s been even longer since I’ve seen my cousin, but it’s clear that like me, he is precisely where he wants to be. It was hard to tell which of us was more excited.’
‘We rested in his cabin, reminiscing about old times and respectively murdering our guitar and harmonica until we ran out of songs we could play. Todd and Kennedy were in the Tetons but they’d be back at work the next day. Then, surrounded by everyone new and old gathered around the cabin porch, I realised I’d come home, as we laughed and hugged and smiled and pointed out how nothing seemed to have changed. The one ugly exception was the installation of wi-fi, which despite being completely rubbish, makes me a little sad. So, I deleted all the social media apps off my phone and resolved to save the necessary internet sessions for trips to Gardiner. It was such a ridiculously good feeling to be back in Yellowstone, and genuinely heart-warming to see that everybody else seemed to be just as happy about it; as horribly cheesy as it sounds, it honestly felt like a massive family reunion.
Let the adventure begin.’