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I took the scenic route to Yellowstone National Park by cruising from Bozeman down through Paradise Valley to the North entrance at Gardiner. This valley is exactly what I bet the pioneers were imagining in their quest West: a river rippling through the center of the luscious green valley speckled with ranches surrounded by rust colored rock canyons. I was amazed to enter the giant stone arch into the park and immediately be immersed in the old west with a deer crossing over the road. In someways it feels as if we are invading these animals’ habitat with our roads and campsites and lodges. But I guess that is the age old question (much older than this 130+ year old park): Where do humans fall in the hierarchy of the planet? Do we have a right to dominate (or just enjoy) the natural world?

Yellowstone hot springs south of Mammoth

Yellowstone hot springs south of Mammoth

I must say it would be a shame not to have access to these 50 million odd acres of nature, which is clearly why Yellowstone was the first national park. This has to be the most amazing natural environment I have ever been to…yet. The diversity is astounding. It’s as if God was experimenting with new ecosystem recipes, adding some mountains and prairies here, some deciduous forests there, and oh hell, let’s see what some micro bacterial hot springs will do (metaphorically speaking, of course, since I believe in evolution). Speaking of evolution, the animals there are enormous. This whole place, giant mountains and never ending valleys, puts you in perspective – we humans are each such a tiny part of this vast, living planet. While driving along the main highway going south through the park all the sudden traffic slowed to a halt and a group of elk moseyed across the road and directly in front of the hood of my car. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park. If I was to stand next to the female elk, I think I would’ve reached her shoulder – I can’t even imagine encountering a dinosaur!

That night I camped south of the Mammoth hot springs at Indian Creek. I was amazed to find that I felt alone as I hiked through the forest to sit by the creek in a likely Bison bed of matted down grasses and then made dinner and sat by the fire. It hit me that this was the first night of the trip that I was truly alone. The Californians at the next campsite didn’t get back until late and so I didn’t make any friends that night. I enjoyed the blessing of a warm and vibrant fire as I read Newsweek and then sorted through my thoughts from the last week. There is such a fine and fascinating line between solitude and loneliness. By the fire I had the peace and company of solitude, but then in my summer tent there was the void of loneliness that invites the unwanted bed mates: anxiety and fear. The Elk playing their mating flutes loud into the night along with intermittent rain showers kept me up most the night fearing God knows what.

Injured bison walking the highway

Injured bison walking the highway

The next day I tiredly explored the rest of the park playing tourist by taking pictures of the Paint Pots hot springs and Old Faithful blowing its top, gawking at the injured Bison hobbling down the highway and shopping at the Old Faithful Inn and General Store. I don’t know why, by I have always loved tourist traps. While I find most of it superfluous and wasteful, I love to see what people think up to put names on as souvenirs (and I must admit I have a weakness for “Julie” stuff). The junior park ranger gear was pretty dang cute, whereas most of the huckleberry concoctions looked questionable. To be safe I stuck to mostly buying the chocolate candies labeled as different kinds of animal poop. Who doesn’t want poop as a gift?

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My first sunset - Priest River, Idaho

My first sunset - Priest River, Idaho

Reading the signs as I passed through Sand Point, Idaho, around 5 p.m. I learned that I still had a ways to go until Priest River. As I kept passing other camp sites along the winding lakeside road my mind was in knots…just pull off and settle for one of these sites or push through to my pre-decided destination which could very well be full for the night? Risky business, this push/pull of fear and faith. Things worked out – amazing well, in fact. A case of “chance follows design”? Not only did I get a camp site as soon as I pulled up, but I was able to set up camp, see the sunset over the river and make some friends with a neighboring family from Spokane in the first hour. After a great birthday dinner of salmon and sauteed veggies, salad, beer and Toberlone for dessert (a real b-day splurge!) I sat by the fire thinking about faith and fear. How easy it is to be scared and worry…and how testing it is to have faith that things will not only work out, but for the best. Turning off my headlamp after dinner it was amazing to see the difference that light makes. It is easy to be confident when you can see everything in front of you. Whereas in the darkness, with only the flickering light of the Alder burning fire, fear easily wraps around you.

As I sat by my dying fire, I was spontanesouly serenaded with the “Happy Birthday” song by my neighbors who then invited me over to spend the evening roasting marshmellows and makings Jiffy Pop over the fire. For all the safety concerns from family, friends and myself (a tiny bit) I couldn’t have felt more safe that I was not only staying next to friendly folks with a big dog, but the camp site gate locked down from 10 pm to 7 am. Rising early, I made eggs and then started to pack up camp. The Army Corps of Engineers do an incredible job of upkeep here – not only was there firewood, but a kitchen prep area and HOT showers, which I couldn’t resist. Best quarter I ever spent!

Swinging Bridge over Kootenai River, Idaho

Why do we get more fearful as we age? Is fear an offspring of knowledge? Not book knowledge, but knowledge of what getting life is worth and attachment to that life? On the road to Glacier, I made a pit stop along Highway 2 and ended up at the historic Kootenai River. Not planning to hike, I found my trusty Teva flip flops leaving the john and heading down the trail to the breathtaking Kootenai Falls. As I hiked over to the other sight – a Swinging Bridge across the river – a little voice kept fearfully nagging about all my gear in my car as sitting prey in the parking lot. Is this our protective instinct or just paranoia? I was surprised to be overwhelmed by fear going down the grating of the stairs crossing the railroad and then crossing the suspension bridge. Two 10-year-olds gleefully bounced across the bridge, which made me quiver as I looked down through the narrow wood slats into the rushing river beneath. I’ve never thought of my self as having a fear of heights, or really a fear of anything except scorpions, great white sharks and treading water in the bottomless ocean. Is this a fear of heights? or of falling? or of death? If I truly have faith, then isn’t any fear futile?

Swinging Bridge over Kootenai River, Idaho

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26 was a defining and adventurous year for Julie Williams, a Portland, Ore.-based communications consultant.

This blog chronicles Julie's crossing of the quarter-life threshold and coming of age on her solo road trip across seven Western states from Aug.-Sept. 2008.

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