If America's childhood could somehow be located on a map, its latitude and longitude would intersect in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is a stand-alone state in the country of memory. Sprawling across a slim southern edge of Montana and cutting a broad-swatch through northern Wyoming, it proudly straddles the Great Divide like a cowboy on a saddle, while Idaho, to the west, rides alongside-- its brave Ke-mo sah-bee.
In my mind, there is a magic about Yellowstone that comes from the mist of hot bubbling springs and steam-sprouting geysers, like everyone’s favorite—Old Faithful, which erupts every 35 to 120 minutes, its spray reaching as high as 184 feet into the blue Wyoming sky. In the hills and valleys throughout the park, ghostly sulfur mist rises from soft rock outcroppings and thin, crusty salt surfaces. Boiling brooks below ground gurgle softly. Geysers hiss, whistle, and moan before erupting. Their scent of the sulfur is stiff and oddly familiar—a faint tinge of timelessness lingers at its edge.
In early autumn, small heart-shaped aspen leaves are still a bright apple green in the high mountains, though a few groves are already making a bold yellow stand. In those bright spots, a bank of glistening gold doubloons, like money growing on trees, dangles delicately from white branches, trembling and skittery in the now-cool wind. A little lower, in the valleys of this Big Sky country closer to the Grand Teton Mountains and Jackson Hole, the aspens have already changed colors. There they look like a thousand burning bushes—blazing but not consumed.
After driving down from Bozeman, Montana, I pass through Yellowstone’s Western Gate in late September, and park rangers in Smokey-the-Bear-style hats and khaki uniforms greet me with a map. As I enter the park, miraculously, time seems to fold back on itself; the green hues fade from the Aspen trees, and gold emerges as I behold a world of log cabins, western lodges, cowhide furniture, bear rugs, wagon-wheel lamps, divinity candy, and souvenir shops. Before me spread wheat-colored plains where bison roam, and in my mind I hear yippie-ky-o-kay-ay and envision a stream of old western serial memories.
And suddenly, there it is spread before me—my childhood.
Memories gush up from the ground like geysers. Towering pines, ancient oaks, root-linked aspen groves, Yellowstone is a many-splendored-thing, home to bear, elk, buckhorn sheep, bison, mountain goats, white tail deer, and myriad birds.
Even if you’ve never been to America’s first national park, and such memories are not quite your own—merely leftover snapshots from some 1960s or 70s road trip in a camper with your folks to some state park, or from an old black and white “Gunsmoke” or “Big Valley” episode—they’re your memories all the same because indeed they America’s memories.
America’s childhood happened here.
This is the land of Sacajawea, Lewis and Clark, fur trappers, gold rush guys, “Lonesome Dove” cowboys, Butch Cassidy bandits, wild west gunslingers, Gold Rush miners, saloon keepers, settlers, railroad builders—seekers all—and the history that comes alive here is bound to stir the soul just as if you’d lived it all yourself.
Arrive at Yellowstone’s mammoth-sized Lincoln-Log-like Old Faithful Inn, and I promise some part of you will feel like you’ve been there before—as if your very body holds the memory of this place it deep in the travel-worn creases and folds of your mind’s map.
A flood of nostalgia, not only for your own impossible youth, but for our young nation’s hard-won childhood washes over you. The blood-and-tear-weary plight of her native peoples and the lonely hard winter lives of pioneers all seem to send smoke signals up from every stone chimney in the lodge.
Norman Maclean says it well in A River Runs Through It: “… Life every now and then becomes literature—not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember.”
From that life-becomes-literature feeling and that pleasant déjà vu of sinew-level-sensory memory emerges hope, especially when I consider what a marvel it is that it’s all still here: not only the ancient spaces, the bubbling springs, the soft plains, and buffalo, but the buildings of Yellowstone, too. Structures built in the teens, 20s and 30s still welcome guests. Travelers are sleeping tonight in the very cabins where my grandparents might have honeymooned. All along the walls of the multi-level log lodges and restaurants of Yellowstone hang black and white turn-of-the-century photographs of women in long skirts and men in Howdy-Doody-style cowboy clothes, standing in these same spots, leaning against these same log walls, watching the same reliable geysers.
Like an Ellis Island of the West, Yellowstone has seen wanderers from every corner of the earth pass through since long before it had boundaries, fences, gates or even a name. In early 1872, Congress set aside 1,221,773 acres of public land straddling the future states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho as America’s first national park, and on March 1 President Grant signed the Yellowstone Act of 1872 designating the region as a public “pleasuring-ground,” to be preserved “from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.” And 142 years since, generations of travelers have come here; and, God willing, future generations will continue this ancient pilgrimage to this park after long we’re gone.
MAP OF MEMORY
Standing before Old Faithful, which I’d first seen in my 20s and could have sworn I’d visited as a child (though my mother tells me we never did), I am struck with the obvious but wholly new realization that Old Faithful has been erupting just about every 74 minutes of every day and night since the last time I stood there, 30 years ago—and who knows how many million years before that? I marvel as the every-moment-of-every-day-ness of it. Even now, while I go about my day, and tonight as I drift off sleep, Old Faithful will erupt on schedule. Think of that next time you wake in the night: Somewhere, a geyser blows.
And like Old Faithful, the Wild West I imagined and the Yellowstone I remembered continues, just as it did over a hundred years ago, remaining largely unchanged, unchallenged, and unspoiled by the modern world and my time-diluted adult memory.
In the same way that Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are connected by Yellowstone—like clonal colonies of aspens with a shared ancestry in its roots—so are we Americans all connected to one another, to this land and to our shared story.
“This land is your land; this land is my land,” as Woody Guthrie sings, so it’s only natural that our collective memory would be stronger than any one individual’s.
Before leaving the park, I stop at a gift shop and buy a junior park ranger hat and a buffalo-shaped bank for my kids, just as I remembered my parents doing for me when I was a child—or was that a family trip to the Grand Canyon? Or maybe Sequoia National Park? I’m not sure. Only the map of memory matters now.
As I pack my Yellowstone souvenirs, I realize these kitschy gifts are my insurance policy that my Wild West memories will live on in my kids and maybe they’ll begin to remember America’s childhood, as well. Perhaps one day, like Old Faithful, nostalgia will spring up in them when they, too, come back here—again—for the very first time.
• Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, Montana. This ranch sits in the wooded edges of Montana’s aptly named Paradise Valley. Opened as a dude ranch in 1929, Mountain Sky Guest Ranch continues to top the list of the nation’s best upscale guest ranch resorts. www.mtnsky.com
• Rainbow Ranch Lodge Resort, Montana. This impeccable small luxury Montana Lodge along the highway leading to Yellowstone combines the rugged adventure of the Wild West with the service expected of a world-class resort. Be sure to dine at its restaurant, known for fine ranch-to-table cuisine from executive chef Jake Irwin, along with the marvelous creations of pastry chef, Liz Michaelis. www.rainbowranchbigsky.com
• Spring Creek Ranch, Wyoming. At the base of the Grand Tetons in Jackson Hole, just south of Yellowstone National Park, atop a 700-foot rise above the valley floor on a 1000-acre wildlife sanctuary sprawls the stunning Spring Creek Ranch. Travelers will love this serene resort with luxury lodging, including rooms in an inn with big wood-burning fireplaces; 3-bedroom townhomes; and 4- bedroom Mountain Villas. Only 5 miles from the town of Jackson, this enchanting western resort is sure to lasso your heart. www.springcreekranch.com
• Yellowstone National Park. For rustic cabins to luxury suites in Yellowstone, visit www.usparklodging.com/yellowstone.
Janis Turk is an award-winning travel writer and photographer and lives in Seguin, Texas.