Yellowstone National Park
I always make fun of people for taking pictures of scenery or food they can find much higher quality pictures of online, but my views on that have drastically changed through my trip to Yellowstone. The thrill that comes from snapping a shot of a wild bison (I'm marveling at my own picture to the left although my Sony A6000 did all the work) can't be explained through words. Photography philosophy aside (yes friends, it's okay if phone eats first), it's without a doubt that this has been the best trip of my life, which is surprising given my lack of excitement (an understatement) for nature.
Before digging into what made this trip so fun and memorable, there are a couple external aspects of this trip that could've biased my perception, especially in reflection. As many of you know through my previous posts, I have just left Chicago for good and this trip served as a rather hard transition into my permanent move back to Southern California. I have yet to spend a full 24 hours in Irvine as I left for the 15 hour road trip 12 hours after I set foot back in my childhood home. While it wasn't completely purposeful, I'm glad this past week served as the transition as a rapid return to "normalcy" of what I've been used to for 12 years wouldn't have been as dramatic as I would've liked (jokes!) or provoked the introspection I needed as I transition to the next phase in my life (more serious than it actually is). In essence, I placed a bigger importance on this trip than it probably was, which definitely contributes to my high perception of the past week.
Additionally, as I'm sure many of you can also attest, this was my first family trip since the COVID pandemic has hit, with the last "trip" being more of a day's drive up north to Sequoia National Park (you'll note that my family is really into the outdoors, or at least viewing it by driving there, unlike me). This encouraged me to give the trip my personal attitude best - because let's all be honest, family trips are the root cause of most family arguments - as well as well as use it as an opportunity to levelset with my family on where they are in life as I've been away for some time. For both my personal transition and the family aspect of what this trip meant to me, it's fair to say that external motivators would have significantly influenced my evaluation of Yellowstone.
With overthinking aside, let me highlight one more time that I'm not a man of the outdoors. Don't get me wrong - I was a boy scout once, I've pushed my friends to go on hikes during the pandemic and my pre-orientation trip for college was hiking the Appalachian Trail. I'm not a complete stranger to what we call "nature" nor do I have an allergic reaction to fresh air, I just prefer to be sitting in an air-conditioned room eating my favorite food and having engaging conversations as opposed to setting up a tent and refraining from a proper shower. However, I am one for embracing and overcoming discomfort, which the outdoors definitely has in store. Also note that I'm in full acknowledgement that Yellowstone National Park isn't necessarily the "outdoors," - it's a federal mandated protected area where we pay $35 to drive along nicely paved paths to be in awe of bulky cows and holes that shoot hot water with nice explanation signs in front of them. Perhaps my distaste for this kind of trip is a weird juxtaposition of the fact that I'm not a fan of the outdoors and I don't enjoy things that are not fully in one direction, leading to the conclusion that enjoying the outdoors without actually really being in the outdoors wouldn't be my cup of tea. I've experienced this across all my family trips in all the valleys, canyons and trips. Disclaimer - I'm 100% in recognition that the mere possibility of having family trips is a privilege (perhaps one of the biggest ones I have alongside my family who are young, able and who value the power of family trips). This is more to showcase that this trip was an anomaly for me compared to what I typically enjoy in life.
As a callback to my intro with the bison, it's unreal how much excitement comes from seeing wild animals (and the same ones) for the 5,000th time. Of course the first bison (which happens to be the picture at the top) is much like your first bite into a new cuisine, the joy and shock can't be topped. But unlike your 5,000th spicy chicken sandwich at Chick-Fil-A (or maybe not), every single bison or moose along the way is a cause for yelling "look outside!" There's something surreal about witnessing animals in the "true outdoors," growing up as a city / suburban kid. Fully knowing how naive this is going to make me sound, it genuinely does not feel real and you often have to do a double take to make sure it's not a Disneyland prop with highly advanced animatronics. There's definitely something inherent about us that inclines us to gravitate towards enjoying witnessing animals in the wild. I wondered throughout the trip if the bison feel something similar as they witness all these mammals in four-wheeled containers point metallic rectangles at them.
The nature itself is no different - every geyser, spring, pool (anyone know the difference between them?) brings you to awe, even as you consciously recognize you're staring at a hole in the ground that's spitting out hot water. I also felt the same sentiment here as it comes with animals that this could not be real - my family constantly made jokes on how there must be pipework under us maintained by the park that initiates spring water explosions based on some complicated algorithm. You don't even need to be a geologist or environment enthusiast to enjoy this (I'm certainly not one of them) as you take a drive along the 8-like double loops and stop wherever you see a parking lot with crowds of people. Every section of the park is nicely laid out, with the only effort on your part to walk along the set paths and marvel at the various "attractions" along the way. Even the non-attractions that you hit as you're driving, whether it be the creeks that trickle along the car path or the variations in landscape from one part of the park to the next, are continuously engaging. It's really hard to capture the mere scope of Yellowstone as a whole, as there truly seems to be no end to what it offers and the multitude of the outdoors that it captures. If I had to use one word to describe the experience it would be scale - the entire time you're reminded of your own insignificance (but in a good way) as well as what a blessed country the United States is to have such a gem within its borders that's accessible for the masses.
Stepping away from the philosophical cringe, the park's accessibility is also an unspoken plus. I will admit that the 15 hour drive there passing through Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Montana and entering Wyoming may be not be the most exciting (I'd advise anyone attempting this trip to stop at Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Idaho Falls), but it almost builds character for what is to come. As mentioned before, the only fee associated with the trip is the $35 entrance fee to the park, which is standard across all national parks in the US. We did go during a slight off-season which made parking a non-issue (the most we ever spent looking for a spot was 5 minutes) but given the ample space and quick turnarounds for looking at an attraction, I can't imagine on-season would be any worse. Because it's a national park, the lodging and meal expenses don't stack up too hard either, especially compared to other tourist attractions that are in the middle of nowhere. The food isn't bad (your typical sandwiches and burgers) with the one caveat that you're not allowed to cook in the park (there's not even a microwave in the hotels) for the safety of the park itself. All in all, it's a highly cost-efficient trip for a rather priceless experience. It really does speak for itself as you encounter the diverse array of people there, especially the elderly (many of them driving themselves), which lets you know that anyone can take on this trip and enjoy it. If your party is able to wake up early and can maintain a tightly-packed schedule, I don't envision a thorough exploration of the entire park taking more than a week and a prioritized trip for the main attractions can probably be done in three days.
I appreciate everyone for dealing with my absence for the past week as I was roaming the depths of Wyoming alongside my bison friends. I'm rapidly ramping up to my Southern Californian lifestyle starting tonight and am genuinely excited to see what it has in store. Let me know if you need any recommendations for Yellowstone.