The king of US national parks
A crowd gathered in Mammoth Spring’s churchyard leads me to a black (in fact very brown) bear asleep halfway up a tree. Someone says it was spotted by guests at an afternoon wedding, as the photographer marshalled the bride’s family beneath. National Park Service ranger Bridget Hand is on hand to make sure everyone keeps a safe distance. ‘Yellowstone is like a pocket wilderness, an accessible place for people who live in big cities and have never, ever experienced wildlife in a natural setting. I get asked where we put the animals at night.’
Alex and Danielle Sonsini live in the biggest American city of all, but as experienced national parkers they’re not likely to be asking too many stupid questions. It’s four weeks since they hitched a lovingly restored 1967 Avion caravan to their pick-up truck and set out from New York City, with venerable labrador, Augie, sitting between them. ‘A couple of years back we did a five-month trip all the way to Alaska and back, stopping in every national park along the way,’ says Danielle, who chucked in a high-flying career in IT to satisfy her wanderlust. ‘Out in these places you see unspoiled scenery, but you also find unspoiled people.’ Alex, a corporate chef turned sculptor, feels plugged into the oldest American tradition. ‘Our country was founded by pretty adventurous travellers, and then explored by pioneers in covered wagons. We never have an itinerary when we set off on a trip – it’s just about wherever the road takes us.’
It’s a comment that resonates throughout the balance of my tour. Yellowstone is more than a pocket wilderness – it’s a pocket planet, a theme park of iconic global scenery. Germanic pine forest, mouthwash-blue Scandinavian waterfalls, the Russian steppes, Mexican scrubland, boggy Gaelic moors and even a swathe of sub-Saharan savannah: it’s all here, reminding American visitors why they’ll never need to bother with a passport, and connecting them with the far-flung lands of their forefathers. They’re even getting round-the-world weather packed into a day, from sub-zero mist to wilting sun, via a couple of thundery hailstorms.
Yet at the same time, this place is like nowhere else on Earth. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, that psychedelic cleft in the land that reduced Charles Cook to jaw-slackened silence, might more convincingly belong in another solar system. At the Sonsinis’ suggestion, I round my trip off with another utterly incomparable experience: Boiling River, the only place in Yellowstone where you’re allowed to swim, and for much of the year the only place you’d want to. A half-mile walk from an anonymous car park follows the frigid Gardner River to its confluence with the aforementioned geothermal spring. Here, an artful arrangement of rocky pens blends the skin-flaying and bone-chilling waters. Each is home to half a dozen lolling bathers, their blissed-out, parboiled faces as red as the setting sun behind. They are at one with the volcanic heritage that secured this park its pioneering protected status and, in doing so, kickstarted the whole concept of environmental stewardship. ‘For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,’ I think, stripping down to my underwear and treading gingerly over the slippery stones to join them. Then I lie back with my head on a smooth boulder, gaze dreamily around at the lumpy brown hillsides and let the sulphurous warmth embalm me, a benevolent gesture from the volcanic gods before they blow us all to kingdom come.