Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks are two of my favorite places on earth. I’ve spent many summers there, camping and hiking and visiting my daughter, who was a park ranger in Yellowstone for several summers, then a geologist in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Going to Yellowstone every summer was like going to church, meeting God everywhere you turned. Even though it’s one of the most visited national parks in the nation, once you leave the main road you truly are in a wild, untamed place.
Being there, to me at least, is like returning to sanity. Things make sense and the world is as it should be. When life back home becomes crazy with busyness and stress, I close my eyes and turn my thoughts to Yellowstone. Just knowing it’s there is enough.
Tibetans say that Mount Meru is the center of the universe; in my world, the center is Yellowstone.
We need the wild for renewal.
We need the wild to remind us who we are.
We need the wild to keep us from getting lost.
We need the wild to keep us humble.
We need the wild to remind us what is real.
We need the wild to take our breath away.
We need the wild to show us what we’re most afraid of.
We need the wild as a guide, showing us we don’t need anything more than we already have.
We need the wild to show us the way to stillness.
We need the wild to remind us that life goes on without us.
It’s week three of summer vacation. In years past, when the kids were younger, we would be well on our way on our annual summer road trip. Since we had family in Montana, most of our trips were out west to Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, and some trips we managed to squeeze in South Dakota, Utah, and the Four Corners area as well. Each summer our entire family became national park junkies, so for me, summer vacation still means road trip.
There’s something about a road trip that speaks to most Americans, especially a road trip out west. It’s part of our national mythology. Nothing stands as a symbol of American independence and hardiness more than the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. I can’t imagine the difficulties and hardships of traveling such a distance–especially for women, many of whom were pregnant or gave birth during the trip–but what a grand adventure it must have been! Whenever we’ve crossed the Trail in Wyoming, through landscape that is bare yet breathtakingly beautiful, I’m struck by the fact that very little has changed. Other than the thin lonely ribbon of highway that snakes past Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and South Pass, the land looks much the same as it must have over a hundred and fifty years ago. When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I think of those pioneers optimistically marching across a harsh land towards a new, uncertain life.
My favorite national park may be Yellowstone. Yellowstone is a place that reminds me that nature doesn’t need us. Despite the hordes of tourists that clog the park in the summer, once you get off the road and hike into the interior you realize how petty and small your life is compared to the life all around you. When I’m there, I’m reminded how much we need wild places, places where grizzlies and eagles and bison roam free, to remind ourselves that we truly are a part of nature and the cycles of life and death. We’re not separate from nature, and wild places act as a balance to our man-made city wilderness. There’s also something exciting about knowing you’re walking on top of a massive active volcano that scientists say will–not if–explode again one day. When I’m feeling disappointed in mankind and yearn to leave the city, I think of Yellowstone.
If there is such a thing as sacred spaces, then southern Utah is that place for me. Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Natural Bridges National Monument are where I truly feel the presence of something holy and sublime. The emptiness and deep silences seem eternal there, and being confronted with the deep mystery of the universe at night when the sky lights up with more stars than you’ve ever seen before is beyond words. Canyonlands is a place to find yourself, a place to question all that you value and what you want your life to be. When I’m feeling lost and stressed out by the demands of work and relationships, I think of southern Utah.
If I had my way, I’d spend the rest of my life doing nothing more than traveling from one national park to another. In the meantime, there’s always summer vacation.