Among The Bones
Updated: Jan 24
I've had it. Had it with the traffic. The RVs and buses and vans. The gawkers and rubberneckers. The safety signs and orange cones. The stalking for a parking spot, like Walmart on Black Friday. I've had it with the damned fanny packs and shiny white tennis shoes and fill-in-the-blank-tourist-attraction souvenir shirts and visors and selfie sticks.
My wife and I are on day seven of a nine-day trip exploring Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, and I am channeling my inner Ed Abbey. HARD. “I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.” There are.
For me, our national parks are both a blessing and a curse.
The preservation of these public lands for all Americans is an incredible gift. I shudder to think what might have become of them otherwise – high-rise luxury condos with tennis courts, spas and restaurants. Manicured golf courses and sculpted ski slopes. Water and wildlife only accessible to an elite few – havens exclusive to those with means.
At the same time, in creating these parks, in providing this access, we've lost some of the "wildness" that makes them special. Paved roads lead to public restrooms and picnic pavilions. Sacred sanctuaries have been bombarded with boardwalks and benches. Cathedrals have been compromised by the cacophony of cars and the cavorting of campers.
They've become too goddamn civilized, bordering on amusement park, for my palette.
And I'm back to Abbey.“Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. But the chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists. They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”
So, heeding Abbey's words, we crawl out of the car, lace boots, string rods, and walk.
We walk until we can no longer see the road or the people. Until the obnoxious drum of rubber on pavement is lost to the sound of water rushing over rocks left behind by the Ice Age and the bawling of buffalo just over the rise – descendants of herds that have lived on this land continuously since prehistoric times.
Here, chasing native Yellowstone cutthroat trout along the river, we find ourselves in the shadow of the Bannock Trail, once used by Native Americans to access the hunting plains east of the park, and pass sun-bleached bones of those that have succumbed to one misfortune or another in this natural circle. And I am reminded of the true wildness of this place, just a short walk from the industrial tourism I unabashedly bemoan.
I'm reminded of the history. For thousands of years this has been a place where people hunted, fished, gathered plants, quarried obsidian, and used the thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes.
I'm reminded of the true harshness of the environment and the predators that roam this landscape – neither as tame as illusioned from the safety of sheet metal and fabric and glass. Not something experienced on a screen or behind the barrier of bars, but something close and intimate. Something I am a part of rather than a witness to.
At nearly 3,500-square-miles (over 2.2 million acres), Yellowstone is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. And much of it is road-less, boardwalk-less, RV-less, fannypack-less and even trail-less. With a little effort and a little mud on the boots, it is still possible to escape into a landscape that remains largely untouched and untamed. To a place far away from civilized. A place that can still scare you and make you feel small. In fact, the most remote place in the contiguous 48 states, the farthest you can go to get away from it all – the only place you can be more than 20 miles from a road – is here, deep in the south-eastern corner of Yellowstone National Park. It truly is a treasure for the willing.
Jack Turner, in his book The Abstract Wild, penned these words:“We lost the wild bit by bit for ten thousand years and forgave each loss and then forgot.” They've haunted me since first reading them.
Releasing a trout back into the aquamarine water, here among the bones, I stop for a moment and breath the air and touch the dirt and feel once again connected to this place and to a part of myself still wild. And silently promise I will never forget.