For nearly a quarter hour, a bunch of us have been switching positions from standing to sitting on our haunches, from sitting cross-legged to getting up, and watching and waiting for the Lone Star to erupt.
Just then, the gurgling starts again; this time though, it isn’t a false alarm. We are lucky, for the wait can stretch to nearly three hours if you’ve just missed the last show. Sputtering, crackling, gasping, the geyser erupts, putting on a spectacular display for the few hikers who haven’t just driven around the rim of the iridescent supervolcano, the Yellowstone Caldera, but also hiked off part of the 230-kilometre Grand Loop Road to see it. True to its name, the geyser hangs out lone and proud like a star, close to the Idaho side of the national park (Yellowstone is accessible from Montana and Wyoming too). Watching it mesmerised for nearly 30 minutes is the grand finale of the Yellowstone dreams I’ve been waiting to realise for most of my adult life. I’ve waited long to discover the U.S.’s oldest national park, have my own story amid its 2.2 million acres of stunning forests, geysers, and mountains. But I’m not gloating over it, for it’s been a humbling journey of desolation that got me here, the kind that shatters the new-age pompousness of solo travel.
Watching everyone leave and knowing that there’s no one waiting to pick you up is not a novel feeling for me. But at the Bozeman airport in Montana, I strolled around the cosy, carpeted space, trying to figure out the most inexpensive way to get to Gardiner—the town at the park entrance in Montana, beyond which Yellowstone lay, mostly in Wyoming—with a sinking feeling bordering on bleakness. I was without a car in a place with nearly non-existent public transport options, was already burning a hole in my pocket stopping at Yellowstone on my otherwise fairly simple San Francisco-New York route, and steep flights weren’t the only reason. I had chosen to explore the park on my own without anyone to split costs with. I had also chosen to enter from the Montana side of the park which was way less popular compared to the Jackson Hole entrance in Wyoming, and had few budget accommodation and hiking options. And yet, the trails on this side drew me like nothing on that side, not even the Tetons. So here I was, calling random numbers listed on a notice board that apparently provided a shuttle service to Gardiner. None of the shuttle services were actually available, because well, not too many people shuttle between the airport and a seemingly obscure place.
The airport is near empty by now, and I walk to the parking that someone has directed me to, where I meet young Cam, perhaps the only bright spot in my morning. He speaks to a local driver who offers to knock off forty dollars from his $240 dollar fee because he needs to stop en route and attend to some plumbing matters at his home in Livingston. Soon, I’m off on my frightfully-out-of-budget ride, but my random ambling at Livingston while John fixes leaks, makes up for it. It is marked with signboards on its history and a Yellowstone museum.
Late afternoon, I check-in to my room at Hillcrest cottages, the oldest motel in Gardiner run by a family that I barely see during my stay there. It has a deserted look, and I stare at the lone gas station and supermarket across the road, not particularly relishing the heavy flavour of isolation. I can’t unpack fully, because my stay is booked from the next day and I need to shift to another room that will be then available for the rest of my stay. I have a little kitchenette in my room, so I get some groceries and start making dinner through a splitting headache that I’m starting to get from the long day and the general moroseness of it all. In a nutshell, I am miserable like a dog caught in rain. For the first time in a long time, I wished I was travelling with a companion. To hell with solo shenanigans, I thought, wishing I was in Jackson Hole, downing a beer with cheery backpackers. Instead, I was at a place where restaurants had signboards that half-jokingly said “Beware, red-neck zone inside.” I go to bed early to sleep over my wretchedness, willing Yellowstone to cure it all.
Early next morning, Emily, a sprightly young guide whom I’ve signed up for some hiking trails with, picks me up to take me to Bunsen Peak. We zoom past Mammoth Springs, and after a demo on how to use bear sprays, we begin our ascend up the 8,500-metre peak and I get my first introduction to the park and its history. Although I would rate the hike as average (I’m a spoilt Himalayan brat who has a terrible habit of comparing every mountain trail with the ones back home), it is the history of the park, including that of the Native Indians who were its original inhabitants, that enamours me more. While the region was officially declared a park in 1872, it’s discovery had been ‘in the making’ for years, be it the Washburn expedition of 1870, the legendary Lewis and Clark expedition way back in 1805, or explorer David Thompson’s notes in which he first used the words ‘yellow stones’ during his explorations of the area even earlier, in the late 1700s. In between pointing out easy tricks to differentiate between spruce and fir needles that merge with the dominant lodgepole pine cover, Emily also points out Sheepeater Cliff, narrating stories of the Shoshone Indians who had grand bows made of sheep horn. Come evening, I get back to town, rich with my introduction to the park, and finally notice and appreciate the Gardiner river and rolling yellow hills beyond the staid parking of my motel.
When I later hit the Lamar Valley with Emily’s partner Josh, I have my first tryst with the Yellowstone of my dreams. Golden yellow light falls softly on herds of bison and elk, as pronghorn and the occasional coyote I had only previously seen on Discovery Channel roam the wilds in front of my eyes. Hiking through the valley, I stop to take in its sweeping expanse. This is the very spot where the landmark reintroduction of the once near-eradicated wolves happened in 1995, possibly the best thing to have happened to the park after the Great Fire of 1988. In my head, I relive the episode on the resulting revival of the ecosystem the successful reintroduction caused, which I had watched over and over again on the Planet Earth series with Sir Attenborough’s soothing voiceover.
We walk over to a cluster of Aspen trees, where Josh reveals that the interconnectedness of Aspen roots is also the largest ‘organism’ in the park! A substance in it is similar to one in modern day’s aspirin, which is why Native Americans smoked it for a mellow medicinal effect. He also pulls out a geode from a spot that he calls his ‘secret museum,’ tucking it back safely before we continue. He shows us stones along the Lamar riverbank that formed billions of years ago with volcanic ash and petrified redwood. I caress a pebble that probably has two million years of redwood history, and my happiness quotient slowly rises with every trudge around the park. Back in Gardiner, I actually exchange niceties with the now familiar lady at the supermarket across Hillcrest, and have supper with Nancy and Arlene, two hikers I’d met.
My last foray into the park is to see those bubbling mud pots and steaming pools whose unearthing by the first white ‘mountain man,’ John Colter, was laughed at and widely believed to be ridiculous. Colter’s legacy has stood out most for me; he was the original Chris McCandles in his embracing of the wilderness and his reluctance to return to the regular world. Though I’m far from the original Colter’s trail which is closer to northwest Wyoming and the area that had flippantly been dubbed “Colter’s Hell,” I can sense the surreal emotion Colter must have experienced centuries ago when he first saw these strange formations as I go past crackling fumaroles around the Firehole basin early morning.
The pre-dawn drive to get to the trailhead for Lone Star is dotted with vortexes of steam in the horizon which I stop to peer at from the safety of boardwalks. Yellowstone National Park contains half the world’s geothermal activity, and it is surely one of the park’s biggest highlights. Permutations and combinations of heat, sulphurous gases and minerals catalysed by bacteria and algae create multicoloured eddies in dazzling shades, from rusty oranges and electric blues to neon greens mixed with brilliant yellows. The raw silence is only marked with the sound of bubbling water gurgling from deep within the earth, and I watch transfixed; this is a natural phenomenon I have never seen before, and one that humbles me to the core. The marvels of the universe are endless and as the Lone Star goes off, I am full of gratitude for being privy to some of them in my lifetime, a tad chagrined by my initial despondency in nature’s cradle of miracles.
It is this transformation, however, that has taught me the value of desolation in travel. Sometimes travelling offers constant interactions, even if with strangers, to such an extent that we get conditioned to being uncomfortable with solitude. Not just with fellow travellers, but we equally are happy to chat with store keepers, drivers, and locals, in a bid to ensure our only alone-time becomes what we smugly call ‘people watching’ in cafés, surrounded by activity and the hustle of movement. I’ve been in tough situations before in the outdoors, but if I was ‘proud’ of my solo exploits, Yellowstone took my pride and rubbed it suitably in my face, and then right after, gently picked me up and allowed me to truly connect with myself, even if through desolation. On my way back from Lone Star, I stop by the Old Faithful, just in time to watch Yellowstone’s most famous geyser go off in the midst of a big gathering. I don’t shrink back from the multitude, and instead of picking up takeaway like some of the other nights, venture into the Iron Horse and Grill, get myself a salad and a pale ale, and having found wholesomeness once again, blend in with the crowds.
The Gardiner entrance in Montana is more expensive to travel to alone as compared to the Jackson Hole side in Wyoming, but the close proximity on this side to the park’s iconic spots makes up for it. The park entrance is $30/Rs2,215 for a week-long pass that you can pick up as you enter.
Fly to Bozeman, from where you will need to take a taxi to Gardiner (shuttles are erratic and only marginally cheaper) for the nearly 2-hr drive (about $250/Rs18,445 one-way). If you have an international driving license though, renting a car works best (about $300/Rs22,150 for a round trip).
Being the oldest motel in Gardiner lends Hillcrest good credibility. It is family-run, so is a safe choice for solo female travellers (www.hillcrestcottages.com). There are a bunch of mid-range options too including the unique Dreamcatcher Tipi Hotel (www.dreamcatchertipihotel.com), but if you can splurge, the gorgeous Old Faithful Inn is right in the heart of the park (www.yellowstonenationalparklodges.com). Camping is a great idea, but not the best if you’re travelling alone, for not just safety but also logistical reasons.
The Raven Grill has great steaks, and down the same lane, there are pizzerias and other options. The Iron Horse has a lovely terrace overlooking the Gardiner river (though you have to contest for a table during busy hours; solo diners get a spot at the bar).
There is a dispensary that is easy to spot in the row of souvenir shops and hiking essentials stores on the main promenade, Park Street, which ends at the Visitor Information Centre, and a prominent departmental store adjacent to the lone gas station on the street you enter Gardiner from.
Emily and Josh are a young Gardiner-based local couple who run Yellowstone Hiking Guides. They’re solid with their knowledge of the park and sometimes surprise you with ice cream in the middle of a hot hiking afternoon (www.yellowstonehiking-guides.com).