Once upon a time it was practically required by law to document your family vacation via blog entry. Oh, I know it’s hard to believe, what with today’s expectations that a vacation be exhaustively captured on high-quality video (including drone footage obvs), professionally edited, cleverly set to a trending (but not overly trending) soundtrack, and fully commodified into TikTok sponcon, not that I’m growing increasingly bitter about The Good Old Internet Days when a person didn’t have to have a doctoral-level degree in multimedia studies to make sense of a social platform.

Anyhoodles, we are back from a road trip that looked about like this:

Mt. Rushmore was sort of a whim destination, I wasn’t personally burning up with a patriotic desire to bask in the carved faces of founding fathers but the boys do love a well-known landmark. I didn’t figure it would be the highlight of our trip, but it was in fact pretty cool, maybe particularly because there was a dramatic rainstorm right before we got to the memorial and the vibe felt fairly on-brand for 2022.

Well, I guess Washington looks as though he might be weeping over the state of things, while Jefferson looks more like he lost a battle with a neti pot.

We also stopped at Devils Tower, which I had completely forgotten was featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Mashed potato mountain! Boo bee boo ba baaaaaa…

We came into Yellowstone through the east entrance (notably, we sailed right through with no traffic, as compared to the jaw-dropping lines we drove past when we left the west entrance) and stayed one night at the Old Faithful Inn. This place is well worth a visit for the lobby alone, but I’m not sure I’d fork out the cash to stay there again — it was super expensive for just okay accommodations. (Then again, having seen the lines, it seems equally challenging to stay outside the park and battle that entrance, at least if you end up staying on the west side.)

On the plus side, we could watch Old Faithful erupting while we were sitting around our hotel room.

We also stayed one night at Canyon Lodge, which was slightly less budget-busting but still felt like it generally needed to be filed under “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” As in, yes you will fork over an actual human organ for the privilege of staying inside the park, and no there will not be A/C or an in-room microwave or affordable meals anywhere nearby.

Okay but who cares about the accommodations, the point is the park! We drove and drove and drove — did you know how big Yellowstone is? — and we couldn’t even see everything we wanted, because of the lingering damage from the recent flooding. It seems like there has been an astounding effort to reopen the park as much as possible, but the northern road through the Lamar Valley (a very popular place for spotting wildlife) is likely closed through the summer.

The great majority of the park is accessible, though, and we probably saw the most animals near Hayden Valley. I suspect many park visitors experience the same reaction to seeing bison as we did: the first time you spot them you freak out and take a trillion pictures of a herd three miles away, and by the end of the trip you’re like, “I’m not pulling over unless the bison is two inches away and performing card tricks.”

Dylan brought my camera and telephoto lens and got some really great images:

We quickly learned that whenever you see a bunch of people clumped up on the side of the road there’s an animal to be seen, and the more insane and traffic-blocking the crowd is, the cooler the animal probably is. People don’t necessarily leap in front of moving RVs for another bison, but a bear? You bet your ass they will, and god bless all the rangers who have to deal with these throngs of excitable humans on the daily and remind them to get the fuck out of the road/stop trying to take a selfie with a grizzly already.

All in all, we saw several bears (mostly black bears, one grizzly mama with cubs), lots of bison, one coyote and one maybe-wolf but it was probably another coyote, elk, and bighorn sheep. Spotting animals turned out to be our very favorite activity, although there were plenty of other natural wonders to behold. The geysers were really something to experience, just wild and smelly and weirdly beautiful and deeply unsettling.

One of my favorite sights was the Brink of the Lower Falls, which was just … well, let’s see if I can include a video here:


Just stunning, and kinda scary to be near (the call of the void!), and entirely worth the steep lung-depleting hike to see. Yellowstone’s elevation is something like 8,000 ft, which I am blaming for my heart rate on the tourist-choked trail back to the parking lot. (According to my watch I hit 177 BPM, which is fairly close to my all-time high of 181 which happened last month when I dumped my kayak in a scary rapid.)

We made it home in two days of driving, making it close to a 3,000 mile round trip. What’s it like to road trip with teenagers, you say? Mostly it is rather quiet: they both disappeared into headphones for the majority of the driving time. We occasionally quizzed each other with trivia cards, played a game we invented that’s sort of like 20 questions, and listened to Mr. Ballen podcasts.

No one got so bored of driving that they complained about it, although I’m sure long stretches were in fact boring. Not for me, though: I felt like I could gaze out the window at passing scenery forever. We went through a lot of beautiful and interesting landscapes along the way, and even when the view was drab miles of scrubland or small towns overtaken by strip malls and dollar stores, I enjoyed it.

It is true that the middle-of-nowhere places had a whole lot of LET’S GO BRANDON signs and the t-shirt displays outside Mt. Rushmore skewed heavily towards angry red-state slogans. But the dull, stupefying feeling of EVERYTHING IS SUPER FUKD that’s been sitting in my chest for months and months felt a little lightened by this trip.

I think there was something soothing to me about the reminder that things continue, farms are still farming and those big spooky rural windmills are still turning and tourism-adjacent western towns are still advertising their huckleberry milkshakes. Bison didn’t get the memo that democracy is on the decline for humans, geysers haven’t heard about forced birth laws, coyotes aren’t posting dipshit articles on Facebook about how masks make you sick.

The world is a mess, the world is so beautiful it hurts. And so it goes.