When I first enter Yellowstone National Park I’m overwhelmed by the crowds around the Old Faithful geyser. The huge parking lot is packed and there’s a number of people wandering around just trying to remember where they’d parked.
I’m tempted to drive away and find a less populated area of Yellowstone, but since I’ve come all the way I figure I’d better go and see Old Faithful erupt first. After all, it’s the must-see sight of the park. Can’t come all the way to Yellowstone and not go see it, right?
The area is so full of gift shops and restaurants that I get lost trying to find Old Faithful. When I do I sit and listen to the families arguing next to me. Kids are yelling at parents and parents at kids. The man next to me is nearly furious that the geyser is three minutes “late.” Suddenly, I realize I’ve become a Tourist. Someone who is shuffling from one “must-see” sight to another without really getting to know the area they’re visiting. I’m waiting for Old Faithful because that’s what you’re supposed to do in Yellowstone.
I wait anyway. I take the required pictures and get out of there. As I expected, I do not need to go far to find a much calmer place away from the Tourists. Up the road there’s a basin of smaller lesser-known geysers next to the river. There’s fewer people and they’re relaxing in the afternoon sun, playing in the river, and wandering around the boardwalk between the geysers.
This is more like it. Here’s a place I can soak up the atmosphere of Yellowstone without having it spoon fed to me in brochures. A couple hours in the shade near the river and I’m feeling better. I head back to the Old Faithful visitor’s center for a map and by now the Tourists have checked Old Faithful off their lists and left for the day. The geyser is steaming against a pink sky and when it goes off later in the evening I’m one of only about twenty people watching.
I spend the next morning waiting for nearby Grand Geyser. It has a four-hour window but I’m not feeling rushed to get to the next thing on the list. I’m too busy chatting with other visitors and getting suggestions about lesser-known sights to visit when I make it over to their part of the world. I get to know some of the Geyser Gazers who spend their summers here. They tell me all about Grand Geyser and what signals that it’s about to go off. When it does 2.5 hours later, it’s amazing and I am hooked. Old Faithful has nothing on it. I come back when it erupts that evening and this time I’m the one who can tell other people what to watch for. I no longer feel like a mindless Tourist, but an explorer. I’m interacting with my surroundings, and learning more than just what’s on the signs. I’m sort of disappointed when Grand Geyser erupts at the beginning of its four-hour window because I haven’t gotten to know all the people around me yet.
Sure, you could rush around, travel with a checklist of the must-see spots trying to visit as many as possible. I’m sure there’s something to be said for it, but I won’t be the one to say it. I’ll speak instead for slow travel and spending extra time in a place you like more than you expected. You might see more things if you keep a checklist, but you remember more if you don’t.
Hints and tips
- Don’t over-plan your trips so you’re hurrying from one attraction to the next.
- If you’re in a crowded tourist destination where everyone’s rushing around, take a breath, slow down.
- Visit some of the lesser-known attractions nearby and come back to the blockbuster sights later.
- Talk to both the other visitors and the locals: more than anything else it will be the people you meet who make your experiences memorable.
- Most importantly, be willing to change your plans if you find a place or people that have struck your fancy.
It’s been five days now and I still haven’t left the geyser region of the park. Once I took time to get to know the area it became more than just a checkbox on the Tourist’s must-see list.
I’m probably going to have to change my plans and save Glacier National Park for another trip if I want to give it and the rest of Yellowstone the time they deserve before I head back to The Job. Soon I’ll explore the other sections of the park, but first, I think I’ll go see who’s out waiting for Grand Geyser to erupt tonight.