Unconsciously feeling for the can of bear spray on my belt as I approach blind corners on the trail.
This was my dream come true.
This was Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone has always had this aura of wonder around it for me. Growing up in the Midwest, we would watch nature videos in school (you always knew it was going to be a good day when they wheeled that enormous TV cart into the classroom) where we would see wolves chasing down elk, Old Faithful spouting lava-hot water into the air, and herds of bison trudging a single-file line through the deep winter snow.
It was wild.
It was true wilderness.
Fast-forward 18 years and there I was, less than five miles from Old Faithful, looking for a place to call home for the night. My girlfriend and I were able to get a backcountry permit at the ranger station that morning, and were excited to find out that there were designated campsites in some of the thermal areas. We didn't care about the sulfur smell or the chance that if we went off trail we could fall into an unnoticeable thermal spot and be cooked alive - heck, we were in Yellowstone!
So we loaded up our packs and hit the trail. In the distance, we could see smoke rising from the wildfire burning the west side of the Park a few miles away. Between the smoke, the sulfur, and the fresh pine and fir trees, our noses were in sensory heaven. Lucky for us, the hike was pretty flat and we made good time. We passed a river with thermals along the bank where it steamed and sizzled, white, crusty flats of thermals barren of any plant life, and traversed a swampy area by hopscotching from carved log to carved log.
As we neared the campsite, I stopped dead in my tracks. To the west, a mere 150 yards away, was the icon of the park. Hundreds of pounds of strength and the wisdom of centuries in its eyes, there stood a majestic bison. I had seen hundreds of bison in my life up to this point, but had never seen one this close while on foot, far away from any man-made structure that offers a sense of security. I felt vulnerable. I felt in the moment. I felt alive.
It's one thing to see an animal from your car. It's a completely other thing when you're exposed. Bison are docile unless they feel you are threatening them, but even with that knowledge, I felt on high alert just being that close to such a powerful creature. We watched it for a moment, taking in the scene: evergreen forests in the background, scattered plumes of steam rising from thermals across the landscape, the symbol of the American West close enough we can hear it tugging and chewing on grass. My girlfriend and I exchanged knowing grins, then continued on our path.
Our campsite ended up being only a few hundred yards from where there were now two bison. We set up our tent and still had some daylight left so decided to do a quick exploratory hike to a waterfall and some notable geysers. The waterfall was beautiful, and we enjoyed the rushing sound and cool spray on our skin. We passed a couple hikers throughout the day, but it really felt like we had the place to ourselves. That's the trick with places like Yellowstone - if you get a mile or two off the beaten path the crowds really diminish. Put in a little effort and you'll be rewarded immensely. We moved on down the trail to a couple of geysers that the ranger suggested we check out, and we were so glad we did. Honestly, these smaller, less well-known geysers are often better than Old Faithful in my opinion. The first one we came to was incredibly active, spouting water and with mudpots making that gurgling sound as they bubble. I think we sat there a good ten minutes watching its performance even though we were quickly losing daylight.
Back at the campsite, we made dinner and settled in for the cold night. The bison had bedded down a quarter mile away, quiet had settled over the valley, and the fragrance of hot chamomile tea drifted from our cup to our noses as we huddled together on the log, soaking it all in.