Like a butterfly from its chrysalis, week 3 emerged from the crusty remains of week 2 to bask in mid-May’s glorious offerings. There’s now a whiff of summer to this American spring; the sun leaves its mark more readily on our flesh, and the days are drawn out as if coaxed from both ends by invisible hands.
Our southerly direction of travel only reinforces this feeling within the collective psyche of the van. Good vibes percolate the musty air of the control deck, and our cup-holder houseplant, Sweet Basil, seems to have shrugged off its Walmart rot and taken on a more verdant green.
Serendipitously, this seasonal change coincided with our visit to Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park and one of America’s biggest (a massive 2,219,790 acres). We tackled this leviathan from above, entering at the park’s north gate and working our way south through its intestinal network of roads, aiming to be passed out of the south entrance as neat turds with a renewed sense of self.
I’m speaking for both of us when I say that in this we were mostly successful. Unarguably, Yellowstone’s natural beauty is awe-inspiring; its apparently endless variety of landscapes – mountain ranges, geysers, plains, canyons – aroused countless ‘whoah’s and expletives from us both. Walking through sweeping valleys populated by roaming herds of bison offered a sense of what America must have felt like in the days before Buffalo Bill killed most of them, before the Europeans had taken this land for their own.
This central point overshadows any reservations I have about the place. But I did have some: most significant being that the park’s design and visitor experience felt closer to theme park than nature reserve. Jurassic Park-esque architecture and a conveyor belt of attractions that you can take in from the comfort of your vehicle are geared towards photo ops rather than actual, interactive experiences.
Nat Geog tells it that 99% of visitors to Yellowstone see only 1% of the park. This makes sense, I think, in part because of time restrictions imposed by the sheer size of the place, but also because of the way the park touts its ‘major attractions’ at the expense of many of its more varied wonders. Entire villages exist to facilitate the timed viewings of Old Faithful blowing its sulphurous lid, or to feed the viewpoints dotted along Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon with coachloads of static punters.
All of this inspired in us a desire to get away from the crowds and onto paths less travelled. To do so is to be richly rewarded. Like nowhere else I’ve been, Yellowstone holds opportunities for immersion in scenes more familiar as paintings, for wildlife encounters from a bygone age – all under the weather of four seasons crammed into one afternoon.
A few days of this and we were up to our necks in memorable experiences. Back in the van with noses pointed south, our failure to consider route practicalities couldn’t have gone better: Yellowstone’s roads were opening up after winter as if to clear the way for our safe passage.
‘Now on to Grand Teton National Park for more mountains and sun cream!’ we exclaimed.
Further details on this in next week’s instalment…