Yellowstone: Oldest & Best

We took a family vacation last week to Yellowstone National Park. It is the first trip we have taken since half of our children have received complicated diagnoses. It’s the first real family getaway in nine years.

And it was a success.

It was short and busy and super fun.

It felt like a giant victory.

I felt repeated inward amazement that we were camping and everybody was behaving themselves. We were driving long distances and people were generally pleasant. We were hiking to waterfalls and looking at geysers and spotting bison. We were not wiping poop off walls or stimming off electronics or tantruming about eating lunch. We were traveling, by gum, and enjoying ourselves!

It wasn’t perfect. We discovered a few gems that we are salting away for the next vacation: Pringles, for instance (Jack demands we must bring oodles of them), and more gum (those sensory-seeking boys thrive on chewing it), along with the road trip car kits for the boys (place them in the car next time, and don’t forget them at home). Nuggets of wisdom we gleaned from experience, each.

I learned that camping is no excuse for lousy cuisine, at least according to my sister, whose family we camped by. You’ve never eaten Tandoori chicken while camping? Well, then you’ve never camped with my sis. Greek yogurt parfaits with berries and almond granola, veggie-laden taco salads, and spaghetti with skillet-toasted garlic ciabatta rounded out their “roughing it” meals, which made our s’mores and cheddar brats look like amateur hour.

We found that Jack does not like any sustained uphill climbing, but he absolutely loves scampering and skipping along a downward slope. Charlie, it appears, has a way of finagling piggy-back rides from any familiar face during longer hikes. Henry, as we suspected all along, has an eagle eye for spotting wildlife and always enjoys a game of pick-up football, even in the wilderness.

My family went to Yellowstone every year when I was a child. I remember from my preschool years descending the hundreds of metal stairs on Uncle Tom’s Trail along the sulfurous yellow canyon walls to stand in the roaring mist of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. The Biscuit Basin geyser boardwalk and the trail to Morning Glory pool are paths I can easily retrace in my mind, they are so familiar.

The last time we took our little brood on such a family vacation was when Henry was two and Jack a newborn. Then life intervened and the crap hit the fan, so to speak. It felt mildly revolutionary to be back after a nine-year hiatus during which time we could barley function at home, let alone in the woods. With hot pots. And buffalo. And many, many European and Asian tourists.

There was a strange and fabulous moment last week as we finished rounding a geyser basin and headed to get ice cream cones at the Hamilton Store across the way. A young man completely decked out in cold weather gear and photographic accoutrements barreled across a wooden bridge toward us. He didn’t break his running stride when he saw us, but he called out to us, a group of complete strangers, that nearby Beehive geyser was about to erupt. “It’s happening in ninety seconds!” he enthused. His excitement was airborne.

It vaguely reminded me of an experience as a teen during a trip over Dunraven Pass between Canyon and Roosevelt. We were driving around in the twilight hoping to see animals as they became more active at dusk. A group of cars had stopped in a pull-out overlooking a sweeping valley. My dad lowered his window and asked, “What do you see?” An exuberant young man replied without missing a beat, “Bears! In an hour!” as if the wildlife were waiting behind a curtain for the clock to tick to show time.

That animal-rich viewing drive is still known as Bears In An Hour to my people.

Yellowstone is glorious. I don’t blame anyone for being freak-show excited about experiencing it.

When we climbed last week to Mystic Falls, picnicked at Nez Prez, and tramped along the Old Faithful geyser boardwalk, my psyche marveled at what we seemingly nonchalantly had achieved: we came back.

“This is happening,” I thrilled. “We are actually doing this.”

I almost wanted to scream it out to a pack of tourists at Grand Prismatic pool.

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