My last trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park started like many others. I was full of excitement and anticipation. I had a specific shot list and many other general ideas. I would be determined to get some great images. I was also returning to a place that I had the fortune of visiting several times in the past. For me it never gets old. I was like kid during Christmas. As I entered Gardiner Montana, just outside of Yellowstone, it felt like Christmas Eve. I was all giddy. I got my campsite and could barely sleep knowing what lied ahead of me the next morning. As I lay in my sleeping bag I had all these images going through may head of what I would hopefully encounter.
The next morning came quickly with very little sleep. Temperatures below freezing and wind made for a restless night but mostly the anticipation of heading into Yellowstone kept my mind from resting. Well before sunrise, I broke down my camp in the dark and headed to the park. No need for caffeine this morning. I was operating on pure adrenaline. Still, it was part of my routine and tradition so I picked up a small coffee anyway.
As I came around the corner to the arch in the North entrance of Yellowstone, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning walking into the living room with the tree all lit up and presents everywhere. My mind was on sensory overload. Even though I have done it many times before, I had to stop and get some shots of the Gateway Arch. Not sure if it was my excitement or some magnetic force pulling me into the park, I acted more like a passing tourist and hopped out just long enough to snap a couple pictures. Yes, I did set up my tripod and spend time composing the shot, but it felt like I just took a couple quick shots and jumped back in my car. I did need to stay the course and focus on getting the images I wanted.
As drove through the Arch and passed the entrance gate I was filled with a nervous excitement. Not being able to sit still I was taking in all the beauty and couldn’t wait to get out and start shooting. Or maybe it was the coffee kicking in and I had to find a bathroom? Either way I was finally here!
Almost overwhelmed by all that nature had to offer, one might think this was my first time visiting the park. After settling down and finding a bathroom I was on my mission of capturing the beauty of Yellowstone. As the day wore on I found myself increasingly unhappy with my photo opportunities. I tried tracking down a great grey owl but never panned out. The scenic shots were not going well. The Elk were in rut but not great shots presented itself. About the only subject that was for sure, was the Bison. Anyone that has been to Yellowstone knows it is hard to go anywhere and not see them. Or be stopped on the road because they are crossing or maybe even walking down the road. For fear of not having anything to show for the day I stopped several times to photograph the big furry creatures. Hopping for some good evening light and maybe a sunset, I headed to the Lamar Valley. I was almost at the point of frustration. Not sure if it was the long drive the day before coupled with little sleep or I wasn’t getting the photo opportunities I wanted. Either way the excitement I had was slowly draining. I can’t ever remember having this feeling before. I almost (I said almost), didn’t care what I was going to photograph and felt like packing up and heading back to camp early.
I found myself at a pullout as the road just comes down into the Lamar Valley. I had scoped this out earlier and thought it would be a good place to set up for sunset. Feeling deflated and like I have nothing to show for my efforts so far, I wasn’t expecting too much but wanted to see what I might get any way. As I worked at composing a shot, nothing looked good to me. The light also wasn’t that great but I knew I didn’t have control over that. While fidgeting with my camera and tripod, desperately looking across the horizon for a potential image to justify the day, a lady surprised me. Earlier, I noticed her and another woman pulled over not too far behind me and had got out and was wondering around.
She said she noticed all the gear I had set up and was intensely looking around and wondered if I had seen anything (wildlife). I told her I didn’t see any animals, but was just taking some landscape photos. We continued talking about what we saw through our travels of the day. It sounded like she had some better luck with a wolf and grizzly sighting. As we continued our conversation it came out that she was traveling with her sister and father. While this wasn’t her first visit to Yellowstone, living on the east coast has limited her to just a couple visits over the years. On the other hand, her sister, who lives closer, has been several more times and her dad has been coming at least once a year since the first visit. He was 67 the first time he came to Yellowstone. It just took one time and he was hooked. It was his favorite place. The lady said having him in the car was better than a personal tour guide. He was so full of information. She couldn’t wait to find the next Moose, bear or Elk to show her Dad. She said the look in his eyes every time they had a wildlife experience was that of one who was visiting for the first time wide eyed and full of excitement. While the close up wildlife experiences were great, you could tell that seeing the look on her father’s face was something she will remember far longer. She continued to tell me that even if they weren’t seeing any wildlife on their drive, it seemed around every corner her father had some great story of something that happened there on a previous trip. For twenty years her father had been coming to Yellowstone. Taking it all in and cherishing it as if it was the first time all over again. While she loves seeing her father’s expression when experiencing the many wonders of Yellowstone, she loved the stories her he told with so much passion about this magical place and what it meant to him.
As our conversation came to a close she revealed how they would be here for only a few more days and were trying to see as much as they could. Their time wasn’t limited just for this trip but by life, as this would be her father’s last trip to his favorite place. He was now 87 and needed a lot of assistance. His daughters wanted to take him on last time to Yellowstone. A place that he has fallen in love with, and he has so many memories of.
It didn’t hit me till later that night. I thought about the conversation I had with that lady. As I became overwhelmed with emotions. My first thought was what a great experience she and her sister are having. To be able to share one of their fathers favorite places together. But it must be so hard knowing this is the last time he will be at Yellowstone. I then tried to put myself in his shoes. What if this is the last time I will be here. I don’t plan on it but it might be. It then made me think back earlier in the day and my issues with trying to get my pictures. I was so focused on getting great pictures that I had tunnel vision. I really wasn’t taking in all that Yellowstone has to offer. My conversation also made me realize how we share amazing places like this with others. This trip should be about enjoying the journey. Needless to say that moment opened my mind up tremendously. People were just as passionate about that area as I was but were enjoying it in different ways. From that moment I became re-energized and had new inspiration. I can say the rest of the trip was one of the best I have been on by myself. Instead of going from point A to point B to take a photo, I tried to enjoy and take in everything in between. I talked to more people (I usually keep to myself) and heard more great stories of their travels. And Yes, I took some of my best images to date.
I never got her name, but to the lady that I talked to in the Lamar Valley on September 30th, 2012, thank you so much. You and your father’s story have been a huge inspiration to me. While the torch wasn’t handed directly to me, I will do my best to share the passion of Yellowstone that your Father first discovered 20 years ago. My best wishes to you, your sister and your Father.