by Ann Pederson
About as faithfully as the old geyser spouts off, Gary and I travel almost every summer to my favorite place in the world—Yellowstone Park. I grew up in Bozeman, Montana and Yellowstone was just a drive up the Gallatin Canyon from my house. My parents and I avoided the tourist seasons so we often went when feet of snow still covered the businesses of West Yellowstone or when the quivering aspen leaves turned yellow in the fall. My attachment to this epic place is more than just memories and myths of my childhood. Yellowstone captures the possibilities and problems of our contemporary culture, where boundaries are more than fences to keep out others but are crossed with intentional transgressions. Watching Old Faithful erupt reminds me that places are not spatial containers but instead are lively interactions of people, processes, politics, and powerful personalities. Places are incarnations of our bodyselves! (and lots of other bodyselves)
Where once indigenous tribes and nations traversed and inhabited the landscape of Yellowstone, later fur traders, military rogues, explorers and white settlers made their homes. These newcomers obliterated native peoples and species. Now, for very good reasons, Native Americans want the names of places like Hayden Valley changed so that they are no longer reminders of the genocide that took place under explorers similar to Ferdinand Hayden. Like the boiling pots of sulphur, the politics of Yellowstone roil with conflict. Whether it’s the management of forest fires or invasive species into the ecology of the park, the place of Yellowstone is home to these tangled and complicated processes.
I hope to return again next year (and every year) to this place that is so special to me. I have jokingly (or not, if the time is right) told my husband that I would be happy to die there. But I must remind myself every time I make the journey across the Missouri River, westward toward Yellowstone, that this place has never stayed the same, as much as I hope it would do so. Changes can be massive and the land quakes with reminders (the earthquake of 1959 in which several people were killed) or they can be subtle and disruptive when some not so thoughtful tourists make marks in the bacterial mats along the boardwalks. But through all of its layers of lands, in the clear waters of the Firehole River, amongst the bison stopped on the road, this landscape is where I feel most at home. Last week we hiked along the Pelican Valley trail where grizzly bear are often cited, most often earlier in the season. I felt renewed after several miles of hiking, ever aware that one can fall prey to a frustrated bear. But all places are like this—simultaneously beautiful and dangerous, inviting us into the adventure of life with a God who leads us along paths to ventures unknown. The risk, for me, is worth it.