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Wallowing Unhappily In Yellowstone

Cursed cars: a Millennial tourist, among the record-breaking masses, admits to being profoundly disappointed by his front country experience in America's first national park.

Yellowstone bison: what registers when it sees us?  Photo by Steven Fuller
Yellowstone bison: what registers when it sees us? Photo by Steven Fuller
Let me tell you what I know about bison.

A bison’s eye, in physical size, is not half an inch wider than yours or mine, shiny and dyed like beach tar under sunlight, like a glass bottle of blackstrap molasses, like the smooth edge of an obsidian flake where it fades to translucent umber. 

But a bison, for all this richness of iris, doesn’t see very well, relying instead on hearing and smell. So a bison, breathing, rumbles and grumbles; resonant; guttural. He inhales slow and exhales heavy, heady, heaving one warm wave after another: one thousand years...two thousand years...three thousand years...until at last his cacophonous bellow booms across the valley; the dust he wears over his fur quivers and trembles, threatening to return to the ground. 

A bison acquires his dust by wallowing, that is, by rolling on his back in the dirt or mud to spread his scent, shed his winter coat, or scratch an itching bite. He gains, in his wallowing, a powdery sheen, a haze on the horizon of his spine that, like the depths of his gaze, conveys something of his preferred nature, something as soft and gentle as a universe of rain on black water.

I know all this because I was there, in the Lamar Valley at the north end of Yellowstone National Park last summer with my car window rolled down and a bison right there, looking into me, breathing his deep, low breaths. 

I know him the way a people-watcher thinks he knows the personality of someone sitting across the aisle from him on a long bus ride without ever speaking, the way some think they know the life story of the worker picking strawberries in the monoculture out the window by the sag and tatter of his yellowing hat, by the dirt on his shirt, by the arch of his back.

In short, to speak the truth here, I don’t know anything about the bison. My encounter, I realize now, was both fleeting, superficial and unsatisfying.

° ° °

I drove through the Lamar Valley in the summer of 2018 on an assignment for an internship with Mountain Journal in Bozeman, Montana. My boss had tasked me with writing a series on the major national forests in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and so I’d embarked on a grand loop down through northwestern Wyoming to speak to the forest supervisors in Jackson and Cody. He told me that though I would spend weeks in Greater Yellowstone, far longer than the majority of tourists passing through, I would be left smitten and overwhelmed by the complexity of all of the region's moving and static parts.

While returning to Bozeman, I saw bison for the first time — only one at first, the sight of which caused me to slow to a crawl and glance around my empty car, wide-eyed and grinning, wishing for someone to share in my excitement. Around the bend I stopped entirely and got out to marvel at an entire herd plodding across the roadside meadow. In the next few miles I would see hundreds more, some a quarter-mile away, some — like the one who stood next to me on the road — only two or three feet distant.

But even the one directly out my car window — his head close enough to touch, though I didn’t dare — felt, in some more crucial sense, hopelessly far away. Something about him transfixed me, but as he and I were total strangers, it felt like a superficial transfixion. I could tell you he looked ancient and mysterious, but I couldn’t promise I wasn’t just making that up.

I don’t know anything about you, I thought, as I looked into his dark eye. I have no idea who you are. Then another thought; a half-panic: Something’s missing.

Some profundity, some marvelous connection, I felt sure, lay between me and him, and for the life of me I could not access it. I felt taunted. I felt like one struggling against the ropes binding his arms to his sides, wishing to reach out, to touch the person he’s been searching for so long, to alert her to his presence. Did the bison even recognize me as an animal, or simply as an extension of the car around me? 
Some profundity, some marvelous connection, I felt sure, lay between me and him, and for the life of me I could not access it. I felt taunted. I felt like one struggling against the ropes binding his arms to his sides, wishing to reach out, to touch the person he’s been searching for so long, to alert her to his presence. Did the bison even recognize me as an animal, or simply as an extension of the car around me? 
At once, the utter insufficiency of experiencing Yellowstone via automobile struck me; the metal walls felt too small, too tight; the gas pedal would depress too soon, far too soon, rip me away from this chance and speed me on past the infinite other chances that lay between here and Bozeman, beyond the boundaries of the road.

I wished to cast it all off, to abandon the hand-me-down Honda Accord then and there. If I wanted to know the bison, I realized, I’d cut the engine and toss the keys to a passing fool, along with my blessing, and spend a year or more squatting among them in the Lamar Valley, with only my feet and the valley itself to move me.

But I’d come to write, not to fully understand, and I budgeted my time accordingly. I stopped only briefly to stare into some steaming hot springs like the other tourists and to dip in a lake or river every hour or so as a break from driving. How can one write on the fly about a place one has never gotten to know? One may interview, one may research, and this is perfectly good for reporting on the fly as so many media entities from outside the region do. But I wished to do more than report. But it is intimidating and daunting.  I wished to comment, to explain, to feel like I knew what I was talking about. I’m trying to do so now.

From the Lamar Valley I carried on west, arriving after an hour at Mammoth Hot Springs near Yellowstone’s north entrance. I found a parking space and surveyed my passenger-seat snack stash. After our interview, the Shoshone forest supervisor in Cody had invited me to help myself from a table loaded with snacks, and I’d been too thankful for the bounty of free road fuel to think it odd that so much junk food had a place in the headquarters of a national forest. I selected a small bag of Cheetos and munched dryly, aching and sweating after too long on the road. Tourists passed by outside my window — not as interesting as bison, to be sure, but still worth observing.

My family and I had come here a few weeks earlier as tourists ourselves. We’d brought a picnic and sat on the lawn and watched people amble between the steaming travertine terraces above and the parking lot below. We’d walked alongside the others on the boardwalks crisscrossing the terraces, breathing in the sulfur, taking photos. 
Elk watchers in Yellowstone too close for the comfort of wapiti and park rangers.  Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
Elk watchers in Yellowstone too close for the comfort of wapiti and park rangers. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS
While the otherworldly colors and contours of the terraces themselves had held my interest most of all, I’d spent almost as much time observing the tourist crowd, for in many ways I had found them equally as strange.  Former Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk observed that research conducted in the park  is widely recognized for its studies of wildlife, geothermal features and supervolcano, and ecological features, but the least studied large mammal species, the one that is most prolific and impactful on the park, is Homo sapiens.

I’d seen people in flip-flops and high heels, people holding ice cream cones, people from the other side of the planet, people so old or so young or so close to obesity it seemed the journey from the parking lot to the boardwalk might consume all of their strength. Like us, almost all of them had cameras, mostly built into their phones and mostly used either for group pictures or selfies — in either case, the landscape tended to serve as a backdrop for human subjects. I was there to profile or to judge.

Watching these people had impressed upon me a discomforting thought, a gut feeling I didn’t totally trust. None of them have any idea what they’re really doing here, I’d thought. Perhaps none of them should be here? Something about their presence in this place — my own included, if I’d really thought about it — bothered me. I couldn’t have explained it at the time. 

The people I now saw out my car window appeared and behaved much the same, and I couldn’t explain my distaste for their presence at that moment either. I wouldn’t do so until months later, with help from two sources.

The first was Aldo Leopold, who writes in A Sand County Almanac that “To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable. But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society.” 
"To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable. But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society.” —Aldo Leopold
After my encounter with the bison, the part about “seeking but never quite finding” resonated strongly. What bothered me about Mammoth Hot Springs was that I couldn’t tell how many of the people there felt the same. Did most of them seek travel or golf, or had they come in search of “something more?” Something closer to communion?

I worry about this especially because the letter of the law seems, at first glance, to fall into the former category. The legislation that established Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872, designates the area “as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit or enjoyment of the people.”

In this sense Mammoth Hot Springs has done quite well by providing amenities built for humans. The place offers a hotel furnished with a lounge, gift shop, map room, dining room, terrace grill, and internet (think — you can watch Netflix not a quarter-mile from the travertine terraces). Adjacent sit a visitor center and museum, an historic army fort offering tours, guest cabins (some with hot tubs), a general store, and a gas station. Ice cream and hamburgers may be obtained as soon as the desire arises. 

By design, Mammoth Hot Springs very much resembles a park, but one of the country club or even theme park varieties — the theme, in this case, being “nature.” The thing about theme parks is that they fabricate worlds to suit our imaginations. They convince us we’ve experienced something which, in reality, we have not. My boss at Mountain Journal told me about one Yellowstone superintendent who spent time in the company of DisneyWorld to learn how that iconic completely artificial destination could move so many people through its confines and avoid a sense of crowding. 

This fact—that America's original wonderland offers an invented experience to tourists— only makes it more painful that my experience of other unknowing people — like my experience of the bison — still felt illusory and incomplete. The second source I came across helped me understand why.

The National Park Service website has a page about bison wallowing that says this: “The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines wallowing as ‘experiencing or enjoying something without making any effort to change your situation’ or ‘to roll about in deep mud or water.’” In my research I’ve become aware of a third definition: “to indulge in an unrestrained manner.” 
A Yellowstone bison rests in the wallow.  Photo by Diane Renkin/NPS
A Yellowstone bison rests in the wallow. Photo by Diane Renkin/NPS
The bison I saw in the Lamar Valley checked all three boxes. They literally rolled about, indulging in dirt, and seemed to enjoy the experience entirely as it was. In some cases, they had wallowed so often in one spot that a shallow depression had formed, marked as a favorite by its lack of grass, and I felt that surely they must have known every lump and divot of its surface, and which ones best scratched an itch, and where accumulated the softest, coolest beds of dust. They immersed themselves in the ground on which they stood, I imagined, and knew it with an intimacy few could match. This was their wallow spot.

In what, then, was wallowing in that moment of eye contact with the bison? I believe now that my frustration derived from the fact that I wallowed at least as much in my car as in the bison himself, if not more so— the vehicle literally surrounded me, after all; I was immersed in it, I rolled about deep within it. 

I worry, though, that we render it too palatable, that we water it down so much we can hardly taste it at all. As a society, we set landscapes like Yellowstone aside because we recognize the value in their sheer aesthetic beauty and feel people should learn to cherish it. We encourage people to wallow—"experiencing or enjoying something without making any effort to change your situation"—and we must guard, by necessity, against the other kind of human wallowing "to indulge in an unrestrained manner.” 

Boardwalks and roads direct us on predetermined paths to ideal vantage points from which to take a photograph — a certificate, writes Leopold, that “attests that its owner has been somewhere and done something.

Even the raw aesthetic beauty of a place like Yellowstone got trumped by commercial monetary gain, promoted by the railroad,  as a motivator in park creation and development. Roads would expedite access even if it came at cost to the essence of what was being protected.

Again, Yellowstone was founded with a late 19th century ideal: as a “pleasuring-ground for the benefit or enjoyment of the people.” Long before there was any sense of ecological understanding, or modern environmental notions of sustainability, or realization how important Yellowstone would be symbolically in today's world—the focus was on it functioning as a curiosity full of oddities. 

There was little thought given really to Yellowstone's intrinsic value. The park landscape only held as much value as the people who came to see it —specifically tourists—specifically white people who possessed sufficient means to enjoy leisure time, as the local Native Americans, residents to this place for hundreds of years, were forcibly evicted for the park’s conception. This place, America decided, was for white people, and white people (America also decided) needed roads.

So it was, and so it is today. Four hundred and sixty-six miles of road wind their way through Yellowstone, delivering tourists to points of greatest interest, while over fifteen miles of boardwalk guide them on optimal routes through small portions of these points. 

Of course, many a road-builder likely had good intentions, hoping easy access would better inspire generations of Americans. Tim Davis, author of National Park Roads: A Legacy in the American Landscape, describes the park road experience as “very carefully conceived to lead you on this choreographed route through natural or cultural landscapes and to minimize its own impacts on them.”

A National Park Service e-book highlights a passage from Aldo Leopold in his classic book,A Sand County Almanac: “It  is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind." 

The e-book then suggests, "The care with which most park roads were constructed did both.”

I have yet to read my fair share of Leopold, but from what I know of him I feel confident in the falsehood of the above statement. Leopold meant to criticize the park road system, among others, for its failure to build receptivity into the “still unlovely human mind.” It is this very failure, perhaps, that makes the current park experience unsatisfactory for those who seek something more than “travel or golf.”

Still, one must admit the value of easy access by road. Without “public awareness”—an amorphous imprecise concept— and sufficient attendance, yes, the parks might lose funding if they are not packing people in, even if today’s record number of Yellowstone visitors are overwhelming the frontcountry resources they are coming to see. 

Tourists, after all, are said to carry voting and buying power, and exposure to scenic undeveloped landscapes may sway those powers in favor of conservation; that's the position, anyway, of some non-governmental environmental organizations pushing to fill more of the backcountry with recreationistss. 

In the case of Yellowstone, I now keenly understand why a real balance must be struck if the natural qualities of the park is to survive

I question whether that balance has been properly achieved, and whether a jaunt on the boardwalk at Mammoth Hot Springs or a drive through the Lamar Valley — or, indeed, any activity of the average Yellowstone tourist — truly amounts to meaningful “exposure” to nature.

The average Yellowstone tourist wallows chiefly in the roads, yet rather than enhancing experience, the roads amount to the greatest barrier of all. They act as vehicles for cars, literal barriers between our bodies and the world around us, the same way as if we are cruising down a freeway in a major city and claiming that our visual sightseeing gives us a real sense of what the city is about.
I've been told, as a member of the Millennial generation, that Yellowstone and public lands belong to me.  I wonder not only what Yellowstone is, but if it continues on its present course, what it will become? Do we care for things that leave us disappointed?
Yellowstone's roads provide a means for the arrival of commerce, to hotels and general stores, barriers between our attentions and the landscape that deserves them. They designate a path, an increasingly crowded one, providing an invisible barrier by compelling us to remain within their confines. Signs by the roadside ask us to look but not touch, to prevent wildlife conflicts and habitat damage by staying on-trail —  necessary precautions for the preservationist goals of the park, but ones that prevent immersion, communion, and intimacy with the landscape, reinforcing the illusion of separateness between human and non-human life. 

Remove the roads, and far fewer people will find the strength or time to venture more than a few miles out here at all, immediately reducing such conflicts. Those determined enough to venture forth on foot will likely know better than to provoke wildlife and trample heedlessly atop unfamiliar ground. Lacking cars and hotels, they will escape the veil of security that encourages reckless behavior. They will carry, on average, a better understanding of their own vulnerability, and for embracing this risk they will come to know the landscape far better than their motorized counterparts ever could.
Top photo: A "bison jam" in Yellowstone's Hayden Valley—traffic gridlock caused by tourists moving through a bison herd—is a common occurrence in summer.  Image courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS.  Middle photo::  Summer crowds move along the boardwalks encircling Old Faithful Geyser and other features in the Upper Geyser Basin. Image courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS.  Immediately above here:  Visitors from around the world wait for Old Faithful to erupt. Image courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
Top photo: A "bison jam" in Yellowstone's Hayden Valley—traffic gridlock caused by tourists moving through a bison herd—is a common occurrence in summer. Image courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS. Middle photo:: Summer crowds move along the boardwalks encircling Old Faithful Geyser and other features in the Upper Geyser Basin. Image courtesy Neal Herbert/NPS. Immediately above here: Visitors from around the world wait for Old Faithful to erupt. Image courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
America’s national park status quo, as exemplified by the choreographed car-craze of our first and most famous park, need not stand. America has already shown itself capable of conceiving of roadless landscapes outside of national parks  with its Wilderness Act of 1964, by which “wilderness areas” are designated and kept roadless of modern vehicles by federal law. 

The beauty of Yellowstone, I would argue, hinges not only on physical appearance but on the wild, untamed quality of its original being. When hotels and general stores go up, it jeopardizes not only the people’s ability to wallow without distraction, but also those wild elements perhaps most worth wallowing in. Of course I refer to the obvious physical threats such as litter, vehicle emissions and sheer numbers of people, but also to the deeper threats relating to the character of the landscape as a living entity.

I've been told, as a member of the Millennial generation, that Yellowstone and public lands belong to me.  I wonder not only what Yellowstone is, but if it continues on its present course, what it will become? Do we care for things that leave us disappointed?
 
When we follow only designated routes and view chiefly through screens and windows, the land becomes like an exhibit, a museum piece behind glass. It becomes just a pretty backdrop, a curtain pulled down behind the stage on which geysers and elk perform for our enjoyment. It becomes to itself as a tiger in a zoo to a tiger in the wild — a sad, watered-down shadow of itself, something to be gawked at and photographed but never intimately known. We insult its wildness by observing safely through barriers, for wildness implies a lack of barriers, a lack of guaranteed safety. We deny it any chance to lash out or run away, and if we wanted to become truly familiar with the tiger we would cast off the barriers and meet it on equal ground, prepared to chase, track, fight, or flee, until we catch a glimpse and, perhaps, live to tell the tale.

The same is true of Yellowstone National Park. Under its "use" model, are we really engendering in people the realization that nature needs to be protected and when we move through Yellowstone what exactly is being preserved?

Yellowstone touts wildlife at the core of its original identity. Yet by viewing it in total comfort and at no risk to ourselves, we as tourists fail to respect this.

The remedy, as before, may require that we forego barriers — the most significant, again, being roads. So when I suggested that none of us at Mammoth Hot Springs should be there, I actually meant to say that perhaps, with a few exceptions, none should be there who came with the aid of electricity or gas.

I don’t mean to suggest that people lacking in fitness or resources don’t deserve to see Yellowstone, only that Yellowstone itself, by virtue of its wild identity, deserves to be accessible mostly through muscle power. By all means, we should see the hot springs. We should also have to go for one hell of a long hike in order to do so, and camp out at least a night or two, and not in a campground with bathrooms but in a primitive campsite at most, with maybe an old dirt fire pit and a few logs to sit on as the utmost extent of its amenities.

So, what are my recommendations?

If you must stick to a path of some kind, at least remove the engine, roof, and windshield. Venture onto the more than one thousand miles of trail in Yellowstone’s backcountry, so much less appreciated than their paved counterparts. Carry bear spray and savor that you are in one of the few places left in the Lower 48 wild enough to still have grizzlies.

Or, if you find it too daunting to step from the asphalt, go by bike on the narrow shoulder, and keep an eye out for distracted motorists. In either case, you will at least feel the wind and rain and soil seep into your pores. You will have to move around the bison when he stands in your path, and you will have to do so carefully and respectfully so that you are not displacing the other animals that make their home there or that you leave behind permanent marks.. You will honor your destination’s isolation with your own muscle effort to reach it — not the effort of a motor. 

You will, unlike the typical tourist, respect the landscape by subjecting yourself to it and everything it entails: weather, fatigue, distance, danger. These elements will hit you in such a way as to leave you with memories entirely your own, even if your chosen path mirrors that of hundreds before you. You will come to know the place and all it has to offer — if not absolutely, then at least more intimately than before. You will wallow.
And if, after all that, you still feel that you have not wallowed enough, that you wish to know a place even better, then...where do you go?

° ° °

Once I’d returned to school at the end of the summer, and had had adequate time to let my all-too-brief excursion across the bison’s homeland stew and simmer within me, I wrote a poem about it.

I’ve not been home in quite some time.
I’ve stayed away for a chance to see
These heaving, breathing beasts,
Snorting, grunting, peering back
With deep black eyes,
Older by far than all I know,
Within arm’s reach, though I dare not poke
Even a finger
Out the window.
I look at them. They look at me.
And I find I cannot feel as free as I wish to be, 
Trapped as I am behind the wheel
Of this awful
Goddamned
Automobile
But even if I weren’t, I wonder
If here and now, I’d really understand
The bison like I do the oaks
That grow in the hills outside the room that for now I call my own.
And this, at last, is how I know
I’ve spent too long
Away from home.

EPILOGUE:

I write, now, from home. I am on break from college. On my first day back I went for a run among the oaks that grow in the hills outside the room that for now I call my own. I saw soaring hawks and heard their cries. I stopped to crush dry purple sage between my fingers and breathe deep of its scent. I passed my palms over the barks of live oaks and valley oaks, rough with ridges, and reached up to tickle the tendrils of lace lichen dangling from the lower branches.

I know all of these sights and sounds, smells and feelings, as old friends. I know them because I was there all along; I have spent my life getting to know them. I have indulged in them, I have rolled about in them, and never in a million years would I ask any of them to change.

Here, I can truly wallow like a bison.

EDITOR'S NOTESean Cummings, a proud product of Whitman College, was Mountain Journal's nomadic intern during the summer of 2018. We asked him to write a piece reflecting on his travels through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Also read a reader's response below:

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ADDED NOTE:  Mountain Journal has received numerous responses to the piece above by Sean Cummings.

Dear Mountain Journal
I saw the article "Wallowing Unhappily In Yellowstone by Sean Cummings" on the internet and was eager to read a perspective about a place and state that I love to visit as often as I can. Anything that is written about the buffalo will grab my attention .

For me the buffalo has always held a fascination in both its size and the place it has held in the history of the West . When one thinks of the West, one generally thinks of the buffalo at some point.

I was very dismayed at the point of the article that denigrated white people. Saying that the park was created by white people for white people is an ignorant statement . Sean took what I thought was a thought provoking article and made it into his personal diatribe.

Richard Morris
South Carolina


Sean Cummings
About Sean Cummings

Sean Cummings was Mountain Journal's 2018 summer intern. Hailing from central California, he is a student at Whitman College. Read MoJo's interview with Sean by clicking below.
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