Day 22 Sunday, July 31 Gardiner, MT to Bridge Bay, Yellowstone Park 69 miles
What a tremendous day! I am typing from the campground about 2 miles from the Yellowstone Hotel at Yellowstone Lake. This is good news. I awoke this morning with a sense of both foreboding and determination. Everything I had heard about Yellowstone up to this point was that campsites are reserved weeks and months in advance. I had a planned a route that would get me through Yellowstone in about 85 miles and over two significant passes in the 8500 to 9000 foot range. This is not the type of mileage I should be trying to cover in one day. On the other hand, I had visions of reaching my physical limit only to discover that when a ranger says, “No campsites” it means no campsites. I was prepared to have to make a decision between riding into the dusk of the night to leave the park or to just pitch my tent 50 yards from the road where no one could see me. Both options were not particularly appealing and both carried risks that made me nervous.
I arrived at the North entrance to Yellowstone before 8:00 in the morning ready to do what I had to do to make it safely through the park. I wanted to be able to relax and enjoy the wonders of Yellowstone, but I also didn’t want to put myself in jeopardy come about 6:00 p.m. I asked the ranger what my options were if I simply ran out of steam before I made it to the East entrance (exit). He wasn’t sure. He yelled over to another, apparently more experienced, ranger, “Hey, this guy wants to know what he should do if all the campsites are full and he can’t ride any longer.” She said the words that still bring me close to tears, “If you are a hiker or a biker, you will not be turned away!”
With those words I relaxed and enjoyed an amazing adventure through the park. It is a good thing that there is this policy not to strand hikers and bikers. As the day drew to a close and I was a mere three miles from a potential campsite a thunder and lightning storm blew in off the lake. Wind gusts and cold rain caught both me and Tim (cycling across the US from New York) off guard. We agreed we would share a room if they were under $100. The hotel had one room with one queen bed for $217. We were desperate, but not that desperate. Tim seemed like a nice enough guy, but I couldn’t share a bed on our first date!
I am now in a hiker/biker campsite reserved just for those of us traveling through under our own power. I am next to Matt who also left from Portland on May 2 and is deliberately making his way across the United States to Portland, Maine and visiting friends and family along the way. I met Nathaniel today who left from the East Coast two months ago and is making his way to Flagstaff, Arizona and then will begin the next leg of his journey to Alaska. We talked about this pilgrimage project of “listening for the story of the shift from institutional religion to personal spirituality”. He was wearing a T-shirt with the wonderful quote from the Dalai Lama, “Kindness is my religion”. We hit it off well and are keeping up with our journeys as we may find ourselves crossing in Colorado or Utah.
I saw many of the wild animals of Yellowstone including many elk, bison, geese, and deer. But, the one bull elk I saw not forty feet away in t
he thick of the trees was simply magnificent. This elk had the look of royalty, with a rack easily six or more feet across. It simply took my breath away. He was a majestic animal—confident enough not to let those of us watching bother him and wild enough not to want to linger too long around us.
Of course, the scenery was stunning. I just can’t do justice to the diversity of the terrain and landscape. One moment I am sailing through lush green meadows and then suddenly I am upon a cauldron of boiling, escaping gases from the belly of the earth. I climbed and climbed steep passes with towering peaks on both sides split by rushing streams next to the road. I stood at the top of the Yellowstone Falls and nearly wept at the power and stark beauty. It is a strange experience seeing something that sublime. I could feel my body wanting to lean into it and having to catch myself knowing that the canyon and the water would crush me in a moment. They say one cannot survive if you look directly into the face of God. This is what that felt like. Glance and enjoy, but only from a distance and only for so long.
I do want to end with a final note about the ranger who shared the good news, “You will not be turned away”. I suppose if I was a completely trusting person I would have just assumed that I would be fine one way on another. But, I have carried some anxieties and doubts about this next stage of the journey. I am not sure exactly what changed from the previous three weeks. I think it is partly the increasing distance between towns and the drier, less forgiving environment that I am now entering. Either way, I felt a shift this morning after her remark. The world feels a little softer, more welcoming, and less rigid than it felt just 24 hours ago. In fact, when I entered Yellowstone even the traffic was more accommodating. Matt and I were comparing how the spirit of travelers somehow shifted between Montana and Yellowstone. In Montana we felt like the cars owned the road and we had better not alter their course or speed (this is only slightly exaggerated!). We entered Yellowstone and the rules seemed to change. “There is room for everyone here,” seemed to be the adopted motto.
The world seems rich and beautiful and good tonight. A grizzly bear was spotted in camp a couple of hours ago. I feel like I am standing in the shadow of God.