Day 6: Yellowstone

It’s the oldest of the national parks. Yellowstone was the first place in America that inspired us to say, “This is so amazing, it makes me want to be a better person—let’s share it.” Lots of things make me want to be a better person, Yellowstone included, but it’s the children, the children are holding me back. It’s very hard to be a good person when you are caring for five little people. That must be the problem. Because I was not a good person the day I went to Yellowstone.

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We were stationed in a hotel in Gardiner, MT, just outside of Yellowstone, near the Roosevelt Arch. We stayed here so we could be within striking distance of Mammoth campgrounds, the closest camping spot to the outside of the park. Caleb left at 7 am to drive over and get a spot. He took Beatrice because she is our fourth grader, and thus our ticket to free park entrance. She mostly feels great about this, except when we mercenarily wake her up at 6:30 am.

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Alone in the hotel room with four little boys, I traded sleeping in for damage control. My areas of chief concern: the microwave, the blinds, and the toilet. I like to leave hotel rooms without breaking these items. I was managing just fine, when I heard a knock at the door, thrilled that Caleb was back so quickly with good news regarding national lands, I opened it and held out my hand for the elusive high five, my hair standing at attention in all it’s patriotic glory.

Instead, an apologetic asian couple stood in the doorway. My hand wandered down to push Rowan’s face back into the room. “Our children are trying to sleep! Please keep your children quiet!” In moments like this there’s only one thing to do: apologize to the people you awoke, close the door, then round on the offending children with a voice of quiet and chilling fury, “Stop using the microwave as a barndoor!”

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Without the dignifying presence of Beatrice, we galumphed down to maximize our hotel’s breakfast buffet, and give the guests below us a break. Playing waitress to four hungry boys, I ferried hard-boiled eggs and muffins back and forth to our table. Grinding an egg yolk into a bowl of bran flakes, Leo demand “other” and “more” food. Purposefully keeping my voice gentle and upbeat, I celebrated with the boys how well we were doing. In the middle of an exciting flurry of orange juice and peach harvest yogurt, the hotel desk clerk suddenly blurted out, at the end of her hospitable rope, “The screaming has GOT to stop.” I hadn’t even noticed the screaming.

Around this moment, Caleb and Beatrice returned. Caleb was low. Apparently the instructions I gave him to secure a campsite were more like instructions on how to infuriate park rangers. I told him to drive around the campground, with his windows down and heckle current campers into passing their sites to him. (This is what I read on the internet, ok? In hindsight it obviously sounds like I told him to troll at 5mph like a kidnapper.) Caleb was rightfully halted by the ranger, and Beatrice returned to me, her delicate sensibilities completely horrified at her experiences.

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Leaving breakfast, I hollered to the desk clerk, “Thank you so much for your help!” I know. I know, right? Caleb and I looked at each other, “What if we are actually the worst? Are we the bad guys in this story?” Possibly. It’s a sobering thought, maybe the asian couple weren’t oversensitive, maybe the hostess wasn’t too uptight, maybe the park ranger wasn’t controlling.

We were behaving badly, like entitled and selfish children, grabbing for our share first. Repentance on our lips, we started the day again.

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Yellowstone sits in the caldera of a visibly active hissing volcano. A caldera is just the crater left behind when a volcano blows out the top of it’s mountain. No big deal. Except this caldera is a thin crust over an enormous magma chamber glowing just below the surface. Incidentally, “Caldera” is my hiking trail name. Caleb’s is “Storm King”. I don’t think we need to go into that right now. But he feels strongly about it.

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Everywhere on the west side are roiling, overflowing, stinking, steaming streams that bubble up out of lava beds only two miles under the surface. The whole sulfury business is warm and wafty, and you just have to decide to lean into it like it’s fresh sea air, or you’ll be offended like a little old lady. Gus chose to cover his handsome nose with his shirt, but Beatrice held out her arms in gusts of warm sulfur and shouted, “You can feel the clouds!”

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The sulfur springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and geysers are a gloppy, potent, and steamy sensory experience. An early explorer described Yellowstone as “the place where Hell bubbled up”. And in literature hell is described a lot of ways, from “other people” to “the absence of God”, but I can’t shake the idea of fire and brimstone, and the obvious fire just below the surface of a supervolcano (for real, they call it a supervolcano) made Caleb and I exchange significant glances, “This is a little bit terrifying, right?”

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Of course, right. Leo just points and says “Aaaah, bubbles! Aaaaah, hot!” He gets it.

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Yellowstone is huge, like 3,472 square miles huge. You could fit a state in it. A little one that nobody loves, like Rhode Island, but still. This makes it hard to know when to stop and gawk, and when to keep driving, holding in your heart hopes of future gawking. We lived on this razor’s edge of agony all day. “Can we stop? Should we stop? Or keep pressing on? Everything is beautiful and terrifying.”

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In spite of our indecision, we spotted and stopped at an unmarked geothermal spring across the Gardner River. It’s waters had turned the rock inside out and everything around it was bright red. Nature’s way of staying: stay back. Caleb tentatively crossed the shallow, fast-flowing river, and from the opposing bank I saw that distance had played tricks with me, and the red steaming formation was actually enormous. I expected Caleb to climb it, but I noticed he stayed well clear. When he returned, he shuddered, “It was so hot.” Yellowstone is such a strange place. Even the word “geothermal” is ominous in such a primeval way.

In the way that is common to all humanity, we soon tired of seeing the spectacular and mysterious, and longed to go swimming instead. We were haunted by this strange phenomenon in every place we visited, but the delicate human body can only enjoy so much of nature’s majesty until it cries out for cherries, cheese, and a soft bed.

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