Only an hour after entering Yellowstone National Park, our van got caught in traffic. Driving down the road, we had seen ducks, otters, part of a moose, deer, and a bunch of antelope. Curious as to what the big deal was, I jumped out of our group’s van to walk up ahead and check it out. Armed with only a camera and my curiosity, I made my way up the car line searching for what the holdup was. When I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks. An enormous bison had emerged from in between the cars and was heading right towards me. I saw people closer to it begin running and putting distance between themselves and the bison with their cars. In a state of shock and excitement, I began to slowly back away while observing the strange beast. With sunken eyes, half of its body under a thick layer of fur, and a strange head bob with every step, I felt as if though I were in a sci-fi film. Taking pictures from every angle as I finally arrived to the safety of the van, the bison seemed uninterested in the surrounding commotion and seemed to be only focused on its future destination. I managed to hop into the van less than 20 seconds before it passed by us and then got a closer look at the sacred animal. Without it, an entire population of people, millions of people, in the central United States of America would have ceased to exist. Everything they needed was in this one, big animal and I couldn’t help but appreciate it in that moment. It was an unbelievable situation to meet one in person and one I could not be happier about.
Today we visited Yellowstone! It was so much fun to see the sights and be there with others who had never been there. When we all sat down to eat our lunch a strange feeling hit me, we are in such a beautiful, remote place, but there are so many vehicles and people surrounding us. Just coming back from our NOLS course where we saw sights and wildlife every day, but with zero cars and few other people, it was strange sharing the experience with so many others. Coming back to the front country was exciting, but it is hard to readjust to regular life. The idea of leaving no trace and trying to reduce our environmental impact is permanently stuck in my head, so the sight of roads in the middle of the wilderness felt weird. While going to Yellowstone was awesome, I just felt that the modernization took away from the beauty in our surroundings. I look forward to the rest of our service trip and the places we will travel and connecting the differences between the backcountry to the front country.
As we drove through Yellowstone I was overwhelmed with the parks natural beauty. The numerous waterfalls and flowing hillsides could not be overlooked. We passed numerous buffalo and other forms of wildlife. Although I was amazed by all the park had to offer I was also shocked by how developed the park had become. We always traveled on paved roads and traffic was never farther than an earshot away. I understood the benefits of the increased accessibility, increased profit to maintain the park. There were many visitors touring around Yellowstone that day but were they truly experiencing the parks natural beauty? I feel as though our experience had been altered. Hiking on paved trails, driving down roads to observe wildlife, and being able to use a manmade bathroom all take way the true experience of connecting with the outside world. In my opinion, to achieve the full experience of admiring earth’s beauties, we need to feel the soil beneath our feet, walk to the sound of wind and birds, and be at peace with the natural world. Yellowstone was an incredible sight but I think it has lost some of its natural beauty with the modernization of the park.
Just two days into our road trip towards Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, we spent the night in Cody, Wyoming. We slept soundly in a warm church but woke up to a morning light brighter than what we were expecting. No, we hadn’t slept through our alarms and gotten a few more hours to snooze, it had snowed! Three inches of snow had accumulated overnight and more was falling down. When I saw everything blanketed in white, my heart skipped a beat. It felt like a Christmas morning. Snow in September?! I couldn’t believe it. After a snowball fight and a few pictures, we all piled in the vans. On our drive up and over this mountain, the snow levels increased as it kept falling down. Everyone was either glued to the window as I was, or turned away with disbelief and maybe a little disgust. It was incredible to see sights I had see before in the summer, now covered in snow. I’m very thankful that we experienced all this snow after NOLS!
Transitioning to life in the front country has been a very weird process. We now have so many different things available to us that we didn’t have in the backcountry such as phones, toilet paper, and a roof over our heads. When I first got my phone back, I was amazed at the size and feel of the touch screen. Another hard thing was trying to explain to our family and friends what our expedition was like. So much happened in 23 days that it was hard to put into words. Probably the most difficult transition is the lack of physical activity. We were used to hiking for multiple hours a day, and now we are sitting in the car for multiple hours a day sleeping and eating food. I think we are all missing the simplicity that went along with the backcountry, but looking forward to the upcoming service weeks.
As our group starts settling back into the front country, it’s become apparent how important sustaining our LNT (Leave No Trace) Principles are. Our days are now filled with long car rides, and everyone knows what that means: lots of music, lots of naps, and lots of junk food. Although the vans are filled with snacks, daypacks and luggage there is still enough room to get cozy and comfortable. Each night as we roll into the parking lot of a different church, we all stumble out of the car and into the building but only with our personal items in hand. The next morning as we begin to pile into the vans we are greeted with food wrappers and crumbs all over the seats. Because we did not follow two very important LNT principles we end up leaving 30 minutes later than we would like to. The two LNT principles that are proving to be important in our front country life are 1) plan ahead and prepare and 2) dispose of your waste properly. Since we didn’t do both of these things, our mornings start off a little slowly. Although forgetting our LNT principles isn’t a good thing, going through this experience helps us continue a part of our culture that we had in the backcountry which was to hold each other accountable. We are now able to see that we still need to hold each other accountable and as we continue on our road trip cross-country, I have no doubt that we will begin to practice are LNT principles more regularly and live efficiently.
Today we visited Devil’s Tower, a curious rock spire in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable field and forest. This tower is characterized by the large stone columns that were long ago formed by magma hardening in stone tubes then the rest of the mountain eroding away around it. The Lakota legends about the mountain say that there was once a band of warriors that came under attack by bears. The warriors climbed to the top of the mountain to escape, and started picking off the bears one by one. Then the bears called for a massive bear as tall as the mountain! The massive bear began clawing at the mountain, which is why the mountain looks scratched. The warriors triumphed in the end, and the claw marks on the mountain would forever remain an important part of the Indian traditions around the place. It was very interesting to see the kind of prayer ribbons and other things that the Lakota tie to the trees leading up to the sheer cliffs and I look forward to learning more about them.
In preparation for our arrival to Pine Ridge Reservation, our group was fortunate to welcome Professor Jace DeCory as a speaker. Professor DeCory is a Native American Studies professor at Black Hill State University as well as born on Pine Ridge. Professor DeCory not only explained Lakota history but shared information about her family which is a fundamental part of culture with the Lakota tribe. My favorite part of her presentation was learning about the sacredness of the bison and the multiple and endless uses once hunted. I was fascinated in particular with how the different chambers of the stomach have multiple purposes such as helping and preventing skin diseases and frost bite as well as using the stomach lining for containers. Learning about the bison furthered helped me to understand the holistic approach the Lakota tribe bases their foundation on. I eagerly look forward to arriving at Pine Ridge and continuing to gain knowledge on such a rich history and distinctive culture.
As we pulled up to Bear Butte it was easy to see what had drawn Indians, from hundreds of years ago through present day, to this site. Rising out of the ground, a giant mass of Earth, Bear Butte beckoned us to get closer and understand it. The snow from the previous day was beginning to melt allowing color to wind its way back into the landscape and quick flashes of red, yellow, black and blue kept catching my eye. As we approached the trail the climber inside of me, which was desperately seeking adventure having been in the van for days, looked up and locked eyes with the summit. I began to imagine the vistas but quickly was brought back to the trailhead by another flash of the brightly colored fabric of the prayer flags. This distraction reminded me of where I was. We were standing at a trailhead which would lead us along sacred ground. As we began to walk the frequency of the flags began to increase. The colors against the mountain and snow became comparable to the Hindu Shrines atop the Himalayas often documented by National Geographic. Going farther along the trail I began to think about how sacred this place is for a great many people. It is incredible to think how quickly this sacred place has become a shared space meant for both worshippers and tourists. Our visit to Bear Butte ignited an excitement within me to share space with those who originally worshiped at this site.
Before leaving for the Gap Semester I was fairly nervous about being away from home for my birthday. Where would we be? What would we do? Would I even have friends? Not your typical birthday stress. Yet when we were picked up at the trailhead, most of my worries were no longer on my mind. Two days later as I strolled into the bathroom I was greeted by giant hugs and huge, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” yells. With things off to a great start, we spent the day in Yellowstone National Park site-seeing and enjoying the wild bison from the safety of the van. When we arrived in Cody, Wyoming we got dinner and classes. During the rush to send in homework following the evening meeting I was surprised with a fantastic cake!
Over the past five days, the Gap cohort has been travelling to Pine Ridge and stopping at National Parks and other fundamental points in both Wyoming and South Dakota along the way. While it has definitely been a transition from our backcountry lifestyle experienced at NOLS, I had one of my most meaningful experiences on the road in one of the least expected places… the Mount Rushmore gift shop. While exploring the endless merchandise that the store had to offer, I found myself talking to two men who each played a key role in the production of this great monument. One man helped create both Lincoln and Jefferson’s faces and the other man captured this piece of history through photography. Interacting with these men not only gave me an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity to be connected with living history but to take the time and listen. Having these men at the gift shop added a new level to Mount Rushmore and brought and added a sense of realism to the construction process. Overall as our group heads into the service portion of the Gap Semester it is important for us to remember to take the time to understand and listen to people’s stories and to show compassion because it is when we stop and listen, that we will gain the most.