Day 03 – Yellowstone National Park, WY to Salt Lake City, UT

Saturday 06/16/12


Oh, so cold!  For all of us, our sleep was fitful through the night as we huddled, shivering, in our sleeping bags.  The temperatures continued to drop through the night, until at dawn it was 30 degrees outside.

The funny part is that for some reason we each thought we were the only person who couldn’t sleep.  So rather than getting up and doing something about it (like climbing into the vans and turning on the heat), we all laid there trying not to wake everyone else up with our private misery.  Craziness.

Striking camp in the freezing cold at Yellowstone

As it was, we creaked out of our sleeping bags at about 6am, fumbling for the zippers with numb fingers, sniffling our runny noses.  I took one bleary-eyed look at my zombie-like companions and suggested that we strike camp, pack up the vans, and go get some hot breakfast at the Old Faithful Visitors Center.

There were no objections.  The vans were loaded in record time.

Field of Fumaroles, Yellowstone National Park


As we headed west around the Grand Loop on the north shore of Lake Yellowstone, we saw some pretty amazing geothermal activity.  We stopped briefly for a photograph at a field of fumaroles, and then again at Kepler Cascades.  Once we arrived at Old Faithful, we had a little over an hour before it could be expected to erupt — which was the perfect amount of time to go across the parking lot and get some hot coffee!

The geothermal activity at Yellowstone happens for a very unique reason — namely, the park is situated on top of the world’s largest volcano.  It just hasn’t erupted in the last 600,000 years.  And it has migrated underneath the earth’s crust.

Underneath the alpine lake lies a caldera, or supervolcano, which is a huge lava pit very close to the surface.  The intense heat from the molten rock seeps up through the earth and creates fumaroles, mudpots, sulfur pools, hot springs, and geysers.  Yellowstone attracts visitors from all over the world because of its high concentration of geothermal activity, which can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.

Old Faithful gets its name from the fact that, unlike other geysers that erupt sporadically, this one goes off like clockwork — approximately every 90 minutes, give or take about 10 minutes.  When we arrived, we had missed the last eruption by about 10 minutes (and I’m pretty sure I saw it erupting as I looked out over the treetops from Kepler Cascades).

When we begin to move in time with nature, it becomes more and more apparent how attached we are, as a USAmerican culture, to our clocks and watches.  Why is it that we can’t seem to let go of time?  I could give you some historical reasons — tracing our roots back to the Puritans with their Protestant work ethic, and the mentality that “idle hands do the devil’s work”; or back to the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the assembly line, which instilled in us the idea that being efficient makes more money, and greater output therefore has greater worth, and when you’re smelling the flowers (or the sulfur pools) you aren’t making money and therefore don’t have value as a citizen.

But those historical reasons are just the symptoms, not the core problem.  The core problem is that we have disconnected from the Earth.

The Earth can teach us everything, if we let it.  For every question humans have ever had, there is an answer in nature.  And, conversely, for every thing we see in nature, there is something within us that corresponds.  Within each of us is a caldera, a geyser, a cascade, a canyon.  Just as a river wears down a stone or erodes a hillside, there are forces at work carving spaces within us, too.  There are hot, molten things hiding beneath our surface, and there are icebergs traversing our oceans.  We have much to learn by examining our connection to the Earth.

Waiting for Old Faithful to erupt

The sign in the Visitors Center told us that Old Faithful was scheduled to erupt at 9:37am.  A small notation beneath the announcement read “+/- 10 minutes.”  As we gathered outside in the ever-warming sunshine, Alana asked what time it was.  I told her it was about 9:30.

“Oh, good — so I have seven minutes to go use the bathroom before it happens,” she said.

How accustomed we are to our clocks and schedules!  I gently pointed out that we were waiting for a natural phenomenon, not a human-planned event.  This wasn’t something that a person controlled with the touch of a button — we were operating on geological time.  It would happen when Mother Nature was ready for it to happen, whether her audience had used the restroom or not.

And sure enough, Old Faithful began to erupt a minute later and was finished by 9:37.


Picnic lunch in Grand Teton National Park

Our path south took us out of Yellowstone and into Grand Teton National Park.  A cluster of majestic mountains stretched their shoulders into the bright blue sky along the right side of the highway; snowdrifts and pine forests flowed down to meet at the shores of still-watered lakes.  How could we not stop for a picnic lunch?

At the Marina with the Tetons behind us

By this point, we had been crammed together for nearly three full days, and we talked and decided we could all use a little space from one another.  So we unpacked the coolers, made our sandwiches, and then scattered to enjoy the woodland trails on our own.  It was a lovely respite before we got back in the vans to continue south.

It was my turn to drive the big 15-person van and lead our little caravan.  I remember this very clearly, and once you read the following paragraphs, you will understand why it was a memorable stretch of road.

We left the Tetons behind and made our way through the tourist town of Jackson, Wyoming.  As we continued south, the buildings became fewer and fewer.  Towns became nothing more than blips in the wilderness as we drove on and on.  (As a side note, the majority of the youth voted that this stretch of road was the most boring one on the trip.  Personally, I thought it was breathtaking in comparison to the cow pastures of South Dakota, and I also told them they hadn’t seen the desert hills of Arizona yet.)

“STOP!” Lisa yelled.

I slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid a giant moose that was loping into my path on the freeway.  I came to a stop — and the moose stopped, too.  She stood in the middle of the road, looking perplexed, head turning back and forth to look at either side of the road.  We followed her gaze back in the direction she had come from.

Momma Moose, jogging back up the hill

There was a (relatively) tiny baby moose in the ditch, bleating for its mother in the middle of the road.  A barbed wire fence was preventing it from following, and the poor mother moose apparently hadn’t realized that her youngling couldn’t jump the fence with her.  After considering the options, she turned back the way she had come and performed the most gracefully awkward jump back over the fence.  Her little one followed as they trotted up the hill and out of sight.

I began to drive again.  Lisa decided to take a nap.  The rest of the youth in the back also decided to nap, because they didn’t want to look at the scenery.  The miles sped by quietly as we continued our journey toward Salt Lake City.

A little while later, I noticed a blur a few miles ahead of us down the highway.  As it moved closer, the blur resolved into a semi…except not exactly.  It didn’t look quite right.  After another few moments, I saw that it was actually two semis.

They came closer, and I realized one semi was trying to pass the other semi.  On a two-lane highway.  At eighty miles per hour.

Then I realized that the semi-being-passed was not slowing down for the semi-in-the-oncoming-lane.

And then I realized they were still going to be side by side, taking up the entire highway, when they reached me.

I hit the brakes and moved onto the shoulder of the road, trying to get out of the way without tipping the entire van over.  Poor Lisa was jerked awake and opened her eyes at the exact moment that the two trucks screamed past us on the pavement.

The youth slept through the whole thing.

I waited a moment in the sudden stillness to make sure everything (and everyone) was all in working condition.  Then I eased back onto the highway —

— only to slam on the brakes again to get out of the way of a police car that was speeding towards me, lights flashing, in pursuit of the runaway semi.

(Editorial: I know this could have ended horribly.  It’s every parent’s nightmare when they send their child off on a trip like this — envisioning some crazy driver hitting an entire van full of kids.  So I made up a story to help all this make sense.  You see, the runaway semi had actually been hijacked by an escaped psychiatric patient, or perhaps a convict who was on the lam from the law.  Because our van caused him to slow down, the cops were able to catch him, and he received a high penalty for nearly causing the deaths of twenty people.  So really, we were heroes.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.)

After that, it was almost predictable that I had to pull over onto the shoulder a few minutes later (for the fourth time in half an hour) to make way for two giant hydraulic pumps that were being transported as an oversized load.  The otherwise empty desert road was starting to feel pretty crowded!

About an hour later, I found a gas station to pause at so we could switch drivers.  I decided that I deserved two packages of Hostess cakes and a pint of milk.  They were delicious.  And then as we were pulling away from the gas station (with me not driving), I heard a sound that I’d only ever heard in movies.  I turned to look, and sure enough, there was a cowboy walking into the store wearing spurs on his boots!  That was so awesome that it just made everything all better.  Cupcakes and cowboys — I guess I’m pretty easy to please.


Our homestay in Salt Lake City, Utah

We arrived at our homestay just outside of Salt Lake City right before sunset.  We were all warmly welcomed into a beautiful log cabin home looking out over the mountains that surrounded the east side of the city.  There was a giant finished basement where the youth got to have a slumber party, while the chaperones were given sleeping space in the loft that overlooked the living room.  We prepared a pasta dinner and took turns showering.  As the sun disappeared and the light faded, the youth played games of sardines with the daughters of the house.

Having fun posing with our homestay sisters!

Before bedtime, we had all made new friends once again.  And by sheer, random coincidence, the elder daughter is a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota…which is right across the street from where Groveland UU Fellowship meets…which is where I completed a field study last year…and which is where this young woman began to attend worship this year!  On the other side of the country, I spent the night in the home of someone who worships with the congregation I interned with last year.  What are the odds?!

It just goes to show that no matter how far we travel, we are all interconnected.


About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
This entry was posted in 2012 Phoenix (Youth Pilgrimage). Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Day 03 – Yellowstone National Park, WY to Salt Lake City, UT

  1. Melinda Bennett says:

    Another amazing blog entry by our articulate pilgrim leader! I thoroughly appreciate the story you made up about the potential disaster with the semi. I choose to believe it because the reality is too frightening. I am so very thankful for your alert responses and wise decision-making. I’m totally enjoying your journey vicariously through the blogs. Keep ’em coming!!!

  2. chaplainmatt says:

    It’s times like those that I remember to ask the powers that be to continue watching over me, on the one hand, and start humming “It’s a small world after all” under my breath. Lots of things in this post to be grateful for!

  3. Beverly Montgomery says:

    Thanks again, Leslie, for your vivid reporting and alert leadership. From Old Faithful to moose to semi trucks to home-stay, you are giving us a vicarious journey with you. Safe journey! Bev

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