In the immediate aftermath of a loss, you may find that you wake without remembering. Maybe it hits you within seconds, maybe it takes whole minutes. Either way, grief will strike. It might hit you like a wayward wave, bowling you over, ripping the air from your lungs. Maybe it’s a quick strike, less cinematic, more like a gut punch, a face slap, a snake bite. Or maybe it’s a slow swell, starting with a distant thunderclap of remembering, a realization that incites your hair follicles and slowly, relentlessly floods your consciousness. Maybe it’s not like any of that. Maybe it just fucking hurts.
That first morning at Yellowstone, I woke up on the ground confused. Where the fuck was I, why was I in tent and oh, that’s right, my dog died, and here I am, on the ground in Wyoming trying to outrun grief.
Cue the waves.
In the Army, when everything sucks and you’d rather just not, they tell you to hunt the good stuff. It’s a whole thing. There is, allegedly, always some good happening in some part of your life and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to hunt for that good. I wanted to leave the tent, I wanted to explore, I wanted to go. So, I started hunting.
When I first started hauling my shit across the country to camp in national parks, I tried really hard to keep it simple. I wrote lists, mentally weighed the pros and cons of every single item that went in my bag. I wasn’t backpacking, wasn’t doing any sort of thing where weight was an important factor, but I was hauling a big-ass bag through airports and across parking lots.
I felt certain, in those early days, that I could do without a pillow. A rolled up sweater, I reasoned, would suffice. But I was wrong. I am an adult person closing in on 40. I need a fucking pillow.
It sounds like a simple thing, to find a camp pillow, but it is not. For me, it was a quest, a journey within other journeys. I bought pillows, hated them, spent miles-long hikes fueled by my loathing of those pillows, sleepily plodding through forests and deserts, composing strongly worded letters to pillow makers as I went before finally – FINALLY – finding the pillow, the one I took to Yellowstone with me, the one I woke up with as grief slapped me hard across the heart.
The pillow then, I thought. The pillow is the good stuff.
Yellowstone is one of the parks that’s easy to see from the road, from pull-offs and parking lots. Buffalo and bears walk the roadways. Pavement and planks weave their way around the park’s most touted features. It’s not hard to see beautiful things at Yellowstone, but it is hard to enjoy them without a crowd.
I knew my tolerance for bullshit was low. I was sad, raw, moody. Yellowstone felt like the busiest park I’d ever visited. It was full of plodding people who crowded buffaloes and complained when the bears didn’t step out of the foliage and pose for a portrait. I did not want to be on vacation with those people, I wanted to be alone, I needed to be alone.
Part of my problem was that I didn’t make a plan. I didn’t research anything. I didn’t plot or scheme, didn’t even make a note on my phone. I asked one friend for recommendations, but that’s it. Everything I knew about Yellowstone I knew from the internet, pop culture and road signs. My whole plan was going to Yellowstone. That’s as far as I got.
I spent that first morning wandering around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. I took in the falls, marveled at the power of the Yellowstone River and eventually stepped off the paved walkway onto a little side trail. Then, there, I found solitude.
I’d been so frustrated with myself, so annoyed. I was sad, and sadness was acceptable, but I was finding it hard to enjoy anything. I thought being in the wild was what I needed, thought having space to feel the feels was the most right thing for me, but I hadn’t found the wild or the space I needed until suddenly, there it was.
Every national park has a secret. Most have many. One of Yellowstone’s is that you can easily evade a horde if you just step onto a trail.
Later, at Lake Yellowstone, I tested the theory. The boardwalks by the water were slammed, but it didn’t take much for me to find myself alone again.
Back at camp, I started a fire, settled down with a beer and lost myself in thought. The day had been a lot, but I’d finally found what I needed, finally found a little bit of space and wild. For dinner, I made my favorite thing, Mountain House’s Chicken & Dumplings. I don’t know who told me about this delicious bag of goodness, if I read about it or heard about it or just intuited it, but it turned me into the kind of person who stops strangers in the REI food aisle to extoll the virtues of this dehydrated goodness. I don’t know how it’s so good – it comes from a bag, requires dousing in boiling water and then has to spend a bunch of minutes thinking about it’s feelings and maybe that’s it, maybe that’s when the magic happens, while is sits in boiling water slowly reconstituting itself into perfection.
My campsite sucked, my neighbors brought a cat that was loudly meowing from inside their tent as they giggled through the fire-making process, and I was still really fucking sad. But, I thought as I laid my head on my pillow, I’d found solitude, I’d had my favorite camp dinner and I still had a really good pillow and that was enough, that and making it through one more day.
A NOTE ABOUT HIKING AT YELLOWSTONE: Ok, real talk, it is fucking great to get away from the crowds and be alone in the woods, but please do so safely. Yellowstone is legit bear country, there are bears and bears and bears there and they need their space, they like being alone in the woods too. Remember, when doing a scamper in bear country, carry bear spray, hike in groups or with a friend if you can and make some noise. Don’t surprise the bears. Bears hate surprises.