“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
— David Foster Wallace
“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”
—Inscription, Roosevelt Arch, Yellowstone National Park north entrance
As far as I can tell it is impossible to be fewer than 6,000 feet above sea level when visiting Yellowstone National Park. The altitude yields legendarily bitter winters. Snowfall for much of the year is drastic and unrelenting; many of YNP’s larger resident mammals (those not asleep) migrate down and out of the park during winter’s most pitiless stretch in order to survive. Even autumn and the majority of spring are too cold for intrepid, able-bodied passers-by in Patagonias to comfortably enjoy — to come here during three-fourths of the year is either to love snowmobiling or to make a deliberate decision to be a hard sumbitch. Summer, though; summer.
The park’s beauty is ever-present but in summer it is at its most accessible, and a great many make use of the access, $25 for a weeklong pass or $50 for the year. The beauty is most pronounced in the hours immediately surrounding sunrise and sunset, but then too it is beautiful by vehicle around 10:00 AM when you’re rolling by a shallow, gleaming river, it breaking white on the rocks here and there, and you know how cold it is and how good it would feel on your forehead, and you could, if you wanted to, pull over and experience it, and the whole day is ahead of you; or at night, the Absarokas hiding the moonlight or breaking it, the trees rushing past on either side straight-backed and solemn, the road shadow beyond your headlights and disappeared beyond there, somehow constantly both dis- and re-appearing, a nightmarish beauty (the closest my waking self has ever come to being convinced it was dreaming); or in the late afternoon after a light rain, so localized you’ve moved through it and left it behind you, visible in the rearview, looming, everything around you darker, a darker green, a completely different beauty, a different, more focused painter.
There are times it is not beautiful. It’s certainly less so then its southern neighbor, Grand Teton National Park, whose Grand Tetons stand astride of it cragged and ice-capped, infant, growing — my first sight of them at sunset actually took my breath — a top-notch mountain range in the shadows of which sit steep-banked canyons (one such named Death Canyon, where I spent my first night in the backcountry) and laughably pristine lakes. In truth, as National Parks go, YNP’s beauty is a shade below average. This is most pronounced in the heat of midday. It gets hot fast; 40 degrees as the sun arrives and 70 by 10:00 and 90 by noon. The geothermal phenomena that define the place often reek of sulphur (one is called the Sulphur Cauldron). And most critically there are, on the figure-eight shaped main road, too many people in too many vehicles. Right, okay, here we arrive at a, perhaps the, central question when you are a tourist: how many people is “too many?” What is it about their presence that robs a place like YNP of its beauty?
Suppose you (like I) were in the park and heading towards the west entrance/exit, the largest of five (located at each cardinal direction and in the northeast) at around 11 in the morning, to check out the honeypot town of West Yellowstone, MT, and do some laundry, and maybe buy a book. It’s starting to get hot and the speed limit is 45 and people here almost uniformly drive five miles per hour under the speed limit. Yes sir it’s hot, and your driver’s side window is wide open but at 37 miles an hour (faster than any human being has ever had the right to go) it’s not doing much for you, and you move through some sulphur, and the music you put on is driving music, not braking music (worth a mention: Pink Floyd was perhaps the only band capable of subduing me in times like these; I never had much appreciation and now have tremendous appreciation for what they do), and you’re not tired enough to dissolve into the monotony and you don’t feel like thinking, and every road in YNP is a two-lane highway, an extended taunting. It’s perfect impotence to want to pass a Ford F-150 or Dodge Grand Caravan — which are not more numerous than a handful of other makes and models in the park but which I always found myself trailing, through I don’t think coincidence — almost never getting an opportunity because the road winds so much, and hey, there! you see a small opening, but then around a mountain bend comes an RV and your chance is shot, or the flicker of headlights in the distance coming your way is not quite distant enough, and you hate yourself for being in a rush but also feel like a coward, a real man would have fucking gone for it right there, all these people are cowards (never mind that some have six-year-olds in the backseat, never mind that some are used to driving on the left side of the road, never mind that some are old and have seen their vision and reaction time deteriorate as the years have passed and this worries them, never mind that every time you see a dead bird mangled on the road you feel a few seconds of overpowering indignity and grip the wheel very hard and, oh never mind it), who cares how fast we’re supposed to go, hit it, speed will deliver you! The most maddening feature of all are the handful of electronic signs scattered throughout the park that are hooked up to live radar and tell you how fast you’re going as if you didn’t already know, as if speedometers had never been invented, and what makes them so especially maddening is how effective they are, people slow down for them always, this despite the machines having no authority at all, except, if you are going too fast, to blink at you in white letters over a red background, SLOW DOWN! — perhaps my central act of rebellion on this trip, one of the acts that filled me with the most satisfaction, idiotically childish though it was, was to gun it at these signs, make them taste their own impotence for a change in the face of the wrath of my used 2005 Subaru Outback. If all of this sounds very petty, that’s because it is, but it is also a truth about navigating the park, and therefore about experiencing the park after the initial wonder wears off, a park which for all its magnificence is still, for 95 percent of the people who visit it, nothing but a large figure-eight-shaped two-lane highway to maneuver (an occasional pull-off to check a well-marked scenic moment off the itinerary), with all the numbing, soul-painful banalities that accompany road travel, commutes above all. But: back to passing. Even if you do get it up to make a pass, oftentimes it’s not worth it, given that another half a mile up the road will be another cluster of five or six cars led by a Ford F-150 or Dodge Grand Caravan, so that making any kind of real progress is tough indeed, doubly so at 11 AM on a weekday in August, peak season, when it’s hot and sulfurous and it occurs to you suddenly that every three seconds for the past few minutes you’ve heard the whir of a passing car out of your open driver’s side window, and you raise your eyes and consider the left lane as a whole, bearing sudden witness to a snake of cars evenly spaced, passing you every three seconds, whirring, parading into both horizons, no end in sight.
Their license plates tell you they’re from everywhere; you know they’re greedy because of the long-necked Nikons they can somehow all afford and the trailers they drag behind them and the desperate jams that form whenever a black bear or mule deer ventures too close to the highway, passenger necks craned, Nikons firing, soaking up data, and because of what sightseeing is, a greedy enterprise, an attempt to accumulate into oneself all that can be accumulated in a fixed period of time, the same as a To Do Senior Year!!!!! list is greedy or a woman who visits a famed art museum is greedy; you know they’re ignorant because they’re here, like I am, to “learn” a little bit about what nature is, or not even, about what nature was, maybe the most pathetic (as in pathos) desire a 21st century child of liberal democracy can have, and the one that makes clearest how little we know or like who we are, or why we are, or what we’ve spent the last two centuries and change doing to get us here; you know they’re alien because it is built-in to the visit (all three adjectives are built in, but this one most of all), to enter one must declare oneself an alien, must in fact pay for and be issued a card which, until it expires, will serve as your entry visa into a place you do not belong but which nevertheless was created specifically for you. And you are one of them, as much as you protest innerly, as much as you hate the road and love the soft, quiet ground you still want to subjugate it and this need to subjugate is older than you are, it comes from an ugly, unconquerable place. You are a part of the problem. This place would be better without you.
Now may or may not be the right time to mention what must be mentioned in any piece of writing about YNP, which is this: lurking beneath Yellowstone National Park is a volcano large enough for scientists to designate a supervolcano without a hint of irony. It is active. And to say it “lurks beneath” is in part disingenuous, because without the volcano, the largest active one we know about, the park itself would not be what it is in a thousand different ways — the volcano constitutes the park, is more like it. Although the formation of the land that today makes up YNP was the result of the splendor and power of impossibly nuanced geological forces and processes I hold no hope of ever understanding (let alone comprehending), it’s easiest for me to imagine what is there today as a popped boil — once upon a time filled slowly by magma, thrust into the sky by “convection” maybe etc., until one day the structure could no longer hold and the liquid insides burst forth in a rush of heat, scorching the landscape before their wellspring collapsed into itself. After some cooling and hardening, the result is an elevated caldera; a depression, essentially, a place where there once was earth but no longer, this one measuring in at more than 1500 square miles, larger than the occasional United State. When a supervolcano erupts, as it did 640,000 thousand years ago, creating the Yellowstone Caldera, the eruption is a supereruption. The index geologists use to measure eruption size is similar to that used for hurricanes in that as the rating increases (zero to eight in this case), the intensity of the corresponding explosion increases exponentially. An 8 eruption is thus 1,000 times larger than a 5: eruptions in the Yellowstone hotspot in the past have been almost exclusively 8’s; Mount St. Helens, which erupted in 1980, sent ash into eleven states, caused billions of dollars worth of damage and would have killed thousands had the site not already been closed and evacuated at the behest of geologists, was a 5. Jimmy Carter, who visited the wasteland surrounding St. Helens in the aftermath, compared the area unfavorably to the moon.
As far as scientists know there have been three supereruptions in Yellowstone over the course of the last 2.1 million years — one 2.1 million years ago, the second 1.3 million years ago, and the third already mentioned. Arithmeticians might notice that should the pattern hold North America would be due for another in something like 100,000 years, a sufficiently massive amount of time to glide through the brain completely until one takes into consideration that even with all of geology’s predictive powers trained on it the eruptions of the most faithful geyser in existence (Old F), which occur about once an hour, can only be predicted within plus or minus seven minutes. Of course should YNP’s supervolcano supererupt, the damage (the fire, the ash, the destruction) would lead to millions of deaths, more or less marking the end of civilization in this country and life as we’ve come to know it on the continent. At any given moment, then, the tens of thousands of tourists hiking or plying their children with sweets or settling in for a good night’s sleep at the Old Faithful Inn are one unlucky moment away from immediate incineration, a fact that makes handwringing over the park’s protection seem that much less important and the mundane, commercial aspects of the park that much more surreal.
“That much more surreal” because it is already so, this apology on a hill. There is nothing left of the America Chief Joseph loved except Yellowstone, and now we are charged for the pleasure of overrunning it. In order to understand the park, maybe, one first has to see it as the contradiction it is; an apology, yes, but a sick one — if we were truly sorry it would sit there, alone and untouched, and we could be content knowing it existed for its own sake. Instead we get a capitalism ashamed of itself but, perversely, only capable of apologizing for itself, or expressing itself in any way, through the same behavior that produced the shame. Only money could have allowed for such a convincingly total annihilation of the American bison, and now only money can deliver them, because the truth here is: by paying to enter YNP, I am making it an economically sustainable venture; were it not sustainable, it (and the bison alongside) would disappear. And the truth here also is: in paying to enter YNP, or by paying a corporation called Xanterra (as most do) to eat meals and sleep indoors while on the premises, the premises necessarily forfeit whatever non-physical qualities draw me and others in its direction in the first place — it is not free, or wild, or “authentic”; it’s Disney World for a different demographic, and all the sadder because it’s pretending not to be, because money has found a way to co-opt and profit from its wounded adversary rather than delivering the final, humane blow. How many places can exist only as a compromise, only because it is a compromise? Considered from this angle Yellowstone is a dancing bear with dead eyes, or a cadaver on display: its congested roads are arteries and we its embalming fluid, refusing to let it deteriorate as the natural laws of this country — economics — dictate it would have long ago were it not for Conscience or its generic equivalent.
Except hold on: look around; it’s not a cadaver at all. It’s alive. The core of the planet’s hot exhalations are happening under your feet. That is not a metaphor any more than “the Earth is alive” is a metaphor — somewhere deep and real I came to believe that the steam shuddering up to us from the core is the pant of an all-encompassing superorganism. Which is maybe pagan, or insane? Yes; as were the feelings in me one night just past sunset, alone and eight miles from the nearest road or soul, when the sky opened up. And let’s be clear about one thing up front, or else this anecdote will mean nothing: the size of the sky in the American West is a tired truth, and also cannot be properly explained or captured by anyone less than a phenomenal photographer, and to me made it seem an accident that we live low instead of high, and in its role as an endless ‘reflection’ makes known the size of the land (which in and of itself is an existential test), and is empty even when it’s not. I was camped at the base of a mountain when it opened, and already the night had proven to be the one that occurs on any trip when one mistake leads to another — a mistake meant I was shivering in my tent, my feet like stones, listening to classical music on the only station my portable radio picked up, when suddenly the music and my shivering meant nothing aurally because the sky was tearing open, being riven like a cotton shirt, and the sound was exactly the sound a cotton shirt would make as it was being torn if that cotton shirt were the sky and the destructive hands were electricity. It happened perhaps a dozen times and for the first few I was too shitless to even peek out through the tent’s mesh or count the miles/seconds or do anything but close my eyes and pretend the classical music was important, the whole moment very much like the one in which you are in bed at home alone in total darkness and hear a troubling nearby sound and believe at first that the best way to deal with it is to stiffen and ignore it entirely, only it returns, and returns a third time, until at last the only course of action is to get up and turn on a lamp and see that it is a billowing door or window-shade and make the proper adjustment to the offending party and find sleep shortly thereafter; the difference here of course being there was no adjustment to be made because there is no way to adjust the sky nor any place in the woods to hide from it.
For a minute or two I felt an unknown and complete and irrational fear overtake me, make me almost useless, the fear I imagine makes people huddle in other contexts, a sensation only that with which one cannot reason is capable of producing (nature, war, a madman). I mean, understand: the sky was opening; a single scissor blade expertly wielded was being run through the masking tape that held the whole cardboard package together. In the time I had before the big raindrops came and beat my tent within an inch of its sorry life I stuck my head out the side’s zipper opening and looked up, recognizing for a moment on the one hand that my fear-reverence was a remnant of ancient sky fear-reverence, my experience a low-quality relative of those experiences, this being a powerful recognition; and on the other hand that it made total sense for there to be a controlling force up there because again, what in the fuck else are you going to talk to, reason with, and in so doing overcome fear, muster the courage to even step outdoors when there is a massive uncontrollable plane stretched out over you in all directions, your life a direct consequence of this tarp’s whims — what alternatives are there, except I suppose to give yourself up to probability and affirm the unity of all things, you and the trembling Pleistocene ancestors and the mountain and the rain all distinct and carefully warring, nevertheless interdependent personages? Pagan, Insane, right? Still: it’s what I did. YNP can do that to you.
To keep it rolling with fear (from which maybe all ‘beauty’ is derived), a taste of the avoidable kind: there is a small, secluded lake in the southwest corner of Grand Teton National Park. It is called Phelps Lake. The Tetons (‘breasts’) loom, protect. Midway down the shoreline is a boulder, accessible from the trail, that juts up and over the water, large enough to comfortably accommodate several sober, lounging men. From the crest of the rock one can look down into the clear, still water, or sit and read, or jump. The jump is, conservatively estimated, somewhere between 30 and 35 feet, and the aforementioned clarity of the water ensures that any who jump must first confront the existence of the lake’s bottom; it’s right there, cluttered with clean tree limbs, somehow just deep enough. The first person to jump this rock was a madperson, regardless of any depth testing they might have done beforehand — standing there about to do the thing it looks and feels like no more than a theoretically pretty way to die. Now news of the jump spreads by word of mouth. I was told about it by two smiling, muscular brothers from Ohio who were maybe the first people with whom I had exchanged non-transactional words in 72 hours. Again, the jump appears immediately and patently unsafe — had there not been five hikers my own age already present when I arrived I might have believed the Ohioans guilty of a bizarre, indirect homicide attempt. But there were others present, and their presence and their company was good and affirming. Not all good and affirming things in nature are based in solitude, quietude. I came back to the rock at Phelps three times during my month in the area, jumped perhaps half a dozen times, and each visit to the (relative) social hub and each jump was equally terrifying — not just before but during — was a small terror and a cleansing. That is what it is to see a family of four and to explain to them with a certain coy earnestness that it is safe, and to watch them doubt you, glance down and at each other and smile, laugh (humans laugh) and equivocate for handfuls of minutes at a time, think they have found the courage and be wrong once, twice, three times, four times, to watch them be certain it is unsafe and still understand that it is safe, and to learn where they’re from, and what brings them here, and what brings you here, and to care about them for a moment because their family could be any family, is any family, and because you know eventually they will all jump (you have encountered families of four here before, one hardly an hour ago) but don’t know what it is that compels them or you to the edge (and over) and like this not-knowing; it looks and feels and is dangerous to enter another sphere, you can see the lakebed, words inert and fractional tumbling out of your mouth and theirs, you will be under understood, you will feel next to nothing of what they feel (except for the fear) and what you do pick up on you will misjudge, surely it is safer alone in the woods with the thunder, surely your and their hearts harbor incompatible darknesses, and — but then you are in, the water is so cool and so right, it is a balm, you cannot remember why you wanted not to jump to begin with, why we don’t spend every waking moment jumping, in pursuit of decent-hearted men and women to sit on a rock and be decent with.
I’ve written this much without dwelling on Yellowstone’s bison population, a fact worth noting only because its existence comprised a determinant percentage of ‘why’ I chose to go to YNP with my ill-gotten funding to write poems and not, say, Maine. They’re everywhere on the plains, the young feinting at one another, the species as a whole disgusting and vital, leaking, dumb and seething, gorgeous, everything a wild animal ought to be. Far more than bears, bison present a danger to the average YNP visitor; the bear-hysteria is extensive, almost comic, while no one thinks to make clear that staying away from these massive, horned folks, necks with substantially more diameter than telephone poles — more like a sentient muscle than anything else — might be prudent. Only elk and ravens feel more at home in the park, I think. Bison run the place, cross the two-lane highway when they feel like it, mill here and there. Short-lived traffic jams in the northeast are common at certain hours, not induced by gawking but by several score of bison moving with shoulder-rocking, deliberate steps to wherever it is they need to go. Once while hiking across a field I was confronted by a single, visibly pregnant bison cow resting on a small hill. On the roads hugged by trees rather than plains one often encounters lone, stumbling males, ex-alphas, beaten and cast out by the new hot shit, the new world order ordaining them to wander and be alone and wither and die alone; they, too, are almost always slowly making their way somewhere unseen, as if the destination mattered, and there is a poignancy to the sight, maybe senseless because these aging bulls did the same to another aging bull in their own time, but there it is anyway, lodged in your throat.
I mean there’s something to them, the idea of them, no? This alleged nation of ours used to be blanketed in them, extant written descriptions of the sounds their mass movements produced are near-religious, and now — who’s seen a bison, who even knows what a bison looks like? They are what is supposedto be here. I don’t know. Is that a meaningless phrase? What is ‘supposed’?
I am going to end with a story about bison that outs me as an idiot and a narcissist (‘as if we couldn’t already tell from–‘ nope, shut up), but that is worth ending with nonetheless. I was on my way back to the park from Cooke City, MT, a small and worthy nothing town with a couple bars (one of which Hemingway drank at), a couple non-chain hotels (one under serious construction), a cafe, and an outdoor burger ‘place’ (a window to order at) where I had just consumed a fat burger (no, not bison meat, but I had my fair share of bison meat and don’t feel a particularly urgent need to reconcile anything) made by a twentysomething in a South Park t-shirt that, upon consumption, made me rethink what burgers had the potential to be. I had drank a brown ale called Moose Drool and watched the last half-hour of Tombstone alone around a campfire, unbothered and in some rarefied air as far as contentment goes. I was not driving sober, which was a new experience for me, nor was I, I can say with considerable certainty, over the legal limit, although it hardly matters given that I was not operating my vehicle at 100 percent lucidity and the notion that you are allowed to be any amount impaired at all while operating a lethal weapon is peculiar, backwards. It was just past midnight and the two-lane highway was deserted with the exception of a few quiet vehicles pulled over onto the grassy shoulder, their occupants out into the night with binoculars (or ultra-powerful, tripod friendly Nikons) hunting for wolves by the near-full moonlight. It was a rare moment of seclusion on the road, and I felt as I tended to in such moments a kinship with my vehicle, a harmony, and was driving too fast. Then there were bison everywhere in the road, twenty or so, and I had to jam the brakes not to destroy the whole situation, myself included. I turned down the music and sat idling until by virtue of whatever inner directional steered them they were surrounding me, snorting visible in the cold. My window was open. A bull passed by, indifferent, tired, and stopped to my left, blocking the moon. In the dark I did what a tourist is not supposed to do, an action which, if all partook in it, would in all likelihood mean the ruin of Yellowstone National Park — I put my hand out and placed it palm down somewhere in the center of his side, and felt him breathe. And I was breathing, and he was breathing, and the car was humming obedient, and it didn’t feel like anything that could have happened in another age, it felt like a new and basic and worthy interaction, a new way for this small corner of the world to exist, a synthesis. A small justification, if there is anyone or anything to whom or which we have ever been obligated to justify ourselves. Then I withdrew my hand and he was off.