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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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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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