Non-FictionSpring 2020

Retrace Our Path in Yellowstone – Karen Zhang

Life has no take two. Cherish it and live it to its fullest. I grew up with this saying from adults. Headmaster Ms. Zheng in fourth grade said it to warn us off delinquency and drug abuse. My paternal grandma told me so when I was a teenager deciding which high school to go to. And in my thirties, my ailing Baba quoted the saying when I adamantly opposed his smoking. He had made an exception. He abstained from smoking throughout our trip to Yellowstone National Park. It was in the early summer of 2018. My father and I finally embarked on our West Coast and American West tour that we had dreamed of for several years. Baba’s health was a big concern. His tongue cancer had advanced, and the ER doctor even warned us not to travel far. But Baba was willing to take a chance. He said, “If the cancer has spread in my body, I’m well prepared. Let me see the beautiful scenery of America if I am still mobile.”

To many Chinese tourists, huangshi gongyuan (黄石公园), the four Chinese characters of Yellowstone National Park go deep into their hearts. They love national parks in the United States, and Yellowstone is one of the top must-visit destinations. Established in 1872, Yellowstone is not only the first national park in the United States, but also the first national park in the world. In the same period of time, imperial China was still ruled by Tongzhi, the eighth emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The country was in the midst of Emperor Tongzhi’s Western Affairs Movement to adopt Western military technology in order to strengthen itself against the West. The concept of national parks, specifically, a public green area devoted to protect the natural environment, did not become official until 1950s after the Communists founded New China. And in recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for a national park system with the United States as a model. In fact, a proposed Giant Panda National Park in southwestern China’s Sichuan province boasts an area three times bigger than Yellowstone. Baba could not see China’s panda park in his lifetime, but he was joyous to see the world-renowned Yellowstone National Park.

As our car sped uphill toward a higher elevation—5,300 feet according to a road sign—I felt my ears were blocked. My surroundings sounded as if I were underwater. I could only hear my own breathing with a monotonous echo. I was captivated by the movable scenery outside. The lush lodgepole pine forests disguised the steep, rugged mountains. The underbrush was green and thick, giving an illusion of a solid, verdant ground . Every turn of the roadway brought me a new panorama of forests, mountains, grass, rocks and a bending asphalt path. They were like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, disjointed, and yet coherent. I took a deep breath, exhaled, my ears were unblocked. The engine was murmuring. Nothing else. It seemed the higher the elevation we reached, the quieter the surroundings became. Trees are natural sound mufflers. The sea of trees in the park was like armies of scrawny soldiers safeguarding peace for the wild life. A couple of mountain goats were chewing grass dangerously on vertical cliffs. How did they ascend so stealthily to such a height? Some black raptors were gliding high above mountains with little sound, as if they were swaying in the wind under a blue vacuum dome. 

Our car halted close to Old Faithful. Elevation: above 7,000 feet. A long line of cars were already ahead of us. I thought it was the fame of the park’s most famous geyser that had drawn a traffic overflow. But I was wrong. My map said we still had 20 miles to go. After a good ten minutes, the car did not move an inch. The idling engine sounded louder. In China, drivers are advised to turn off the ignition if the vehicle needs to be parked for a longer period. This practice was not promoted in my driving class in the U.S. The hum of engine had absorbed every decibel my ears could decipher. I could not stand it. I turned off the engine anyway. If I can cut pollution and save fuel, why not? We are stuck, I thought. I wanted to turn around and forgo Old Faithful, but my heart said no. We had come a long way for this spectacle. Baba had traveled more than eight thousand miles from China across the Pacific in time to make this Western trip. He had hoped to complete the voyage to mark a small victory in his bout with terminal cancer. Like most Chinese tourists, we both knew Old Faithful as the most well-known geyser in the park. It was the first named geyser in Yellowstone, and its eruption was predictable.       

Some passengers from behind our car walked briskly toward the traffic ahead of us.

“Let me take a look,” I said and left the car. I hung my DSLR camera on the neck as if I were about to cover breaking news at the scene.

“What’s going on?” a teenaged girl asked a returning man who may have been her parent.

“Bison jam,” the man said, “lots of them.”

“Where?”

“A quarter miles ahead on the road. Do you want to see?”

“Yeah,” the girl answered sheepishly.

“Come on, they’re coming toward us,” the man said, reaching out to the girl’s hand.

For the first time I heard of a bison jam. What is the connection between the animal bison and a sweet preserve? That was my first reaction to the phrase, bison jam. No way could I image the size of the herd until I saw the shaggy brown animals from a distance. I gazed through my long-focus lens to see a mass of dark hairy creature. I snapped a few shots and ran back to our car. I could not hide the excitement in my hot-off-the-press report. 

Baba, look what I’ve got?” I shouted and showed him my photographic proof on the camera. “This is the famous American bison! They’re native to Yellowstone National Park.”

Baba nodded his head, smiling. He probably wanted to say how happy he was that he, too, could see the American bison through my camera lens. He had difficulty speaking since his throat operation. Smoking had taken its toll on his health. But he worshipped his philosophy of life: a good quality of life outweighs a medically-approved lifestyle. Suffering from postoperative complications, he had enjoyed his quiet life even more. His actions said it all. 

He returned the camera to me, took out his own from his handbag, put on his white Mongolian cowboy hat, and got out of the car. He moved so swiftly that there was no time for me to ask: Where are you going? He had not been out of the car all day. We had agreed that on this road trip I would do the legwork: exploring on foot and taking pictures, and Baba could be a sedentary tourist to rest and see as he wished. But his decisive move had broken our agreement. He must have summoned up his whole day’s energy to will his feet to move. I looked at his back getting smaller as he walked toward the crowd. His white cowboy hat beckoned to me in the bright afternoon sun, as if to assure me Baba was safe among the bison watchers. Moments later, the traffic resumed to slow motion. As the car inched forward, I picked up Baba on the roadside. He did not go too far but he saw something wonderful. I saw him busily flipping images on his camera. He could not disguise his glee. Saliva dripped from his grinning mouth, unnoticed, the result of his jaw numbness. Another postoperative complication. I did not want to pat him dry and disrupt that moment of harmony between human and photogenic wildlife.

Our car slowly moved past the massive herd of bison. To my surprise, hundreds of them, big and small, young and old, female and male, scattered across the grassy valley, along the stream, on the hillock, and even on the road! This was phenomenal. This was the bison jam! Several mature bison were standing alone so close to the road. They were the culprits of the stopped traffic. Some daredevil tourists parked a few feet from the wild animals to open their car windows, or even jumped out of their cars to take pictures. I heard Mandarin Chinese spoken, so Chinese tourists were among them. Weren’t they afraid of the danger? I compared bison gallops to the Gallimimus stampede scene in the movie Jurassic Park, save the men in real life might not be as lucky to escape as Dr. Alan Grant and the kids. I kept the advice of the ranger at the park’s entrance to heart: stay at least 25 yards away from all animals, especially the park’s superstar bison. 

I stopped briefly at a safe distance. Through my long-focus camera lens I saw what my naked eyes could not. The long-haired beasts looked tame and occupied. They immersed themselves in the bountiful vegetation, water and space. They wagged their tails non-stop as if to time their essential daily activities like a clock. From my side view, it was not easy for me at first to locate the eye on a bison’s head. Its dark eye only accented the surrounding shades of dark brown hair. The thick fur on its head, front of the body, and forelegs added substance to its already protruding shoulder hump. This was an unbalanced kind of beauty. The top-heavy kind. But the summer was here. It was time for the beautiful beasts to shed their shaggy coat. The front of the bull’s body looked like putting on a tattered and torn undershirt, but snug in his own right.

***

A year later in the Yellowstone Natural History Museum in Cody, Wyoming, I learn that the bulls spend most of the year alone or with other bulls, save during the rutting or mating season. It explains that the loners in my first encounter with the bison jam were male. And I encounter another head in a parking lot. This time with Baba in spirit, I return to Yellowstone National Park as a memorial to him. He passed away a year ago not long after our visit together. I also come here to complete our unfinished voyage to the America West, to discover what I have not seen in the park, and to revisit those familiar trails and sites. My heart is leaden but filled with determination. I am on a mission, and I have brought Baba’s white Mongolian hat on the road. 

On my last day in Yellowstone, I continue to follow the 142-mile Grand Loop in the park heading to the South Entrance. I am ambitious in hope that I can tackle two national parks in one day—Grand Teton National Park lies just 57 miles south. Pressed for time, I skip the crowded attractions, but I cannot tear myself from the famous geothermal features in Yellowstone. At the Biscuit Basin, I see my chance to have a brief stop as a parking spot just becomes available in the full lot. Unlike the frequent eruptions of Old Faithful, or the bubbling Mud Volcano, or the roaring Steamboat Geyser, the geysers in the Biscuit Basin are churning in a smaller scale, but radiating their own emotions and charisma. Just the names of the hot springs and spurting geysers have stirred up my imagination—Shell Spring, Mustard Spring, Jewel Geyser, Cauliflower Geyser, Black Pearl Geyser, Wall Pool, Black Opal Pool. And of course, the mysterious Sapphire Pool. Its crystal clear blue water is so inviting that I pause and gaze for a long moment. A gentle breeze blows across the calm water surface, taking away a veil of white steam, but leaving a whiff of rotten-egg odor. The smell is not repelling though. I can hang on a bit longer, because what is before my eyes is a pool of multiple shades of blue: blue like an azure sky, blue like an aquamarine sea, blue like a piece of cobalt blue gem, blue like an indigo bunting. Beams of sunlight penetrate into a mirror of blue water, reflecting onto layers of rugged rocks underneath. Shadows are formed; the magic of light, heat and water are on full display. What a natural visual effect! If the brilliant multicolored Grand Prismatic Spring is a Hollywood blockbuster, the Sapphire Pool is a low-budget smash. Baba is so missed here.

At the Biscuit Basin, I see not only a myriad of colors and shapes unique to hot springs, geysers and fumaroles, but also the unexpected eruption of one of the geysers. A column of hot water accompanied with steam suddenly shoots into the air vigorously. The phenomenon catches me by surprise. By the time I hold up my camera for a shot, it is too late. I hear the boiling, rumbling and hissing of water; I smell steam and gases; and I feel the pulse of life—for the earth and for me. It is so active, so strong, and so rhythmic, I am astonished. My yearlong grief has not beaten me down; no, not just yet. On the contrary, Baba’s death might evoke my search for the meaning of life. If the geysers and the mud pots churn tirelessly year in and year out, shouldn’t I live on and live well? If I feel small and in awe in front of the immense grandeur of the landscape, wouldn’t other species in the ecosystem feel scared and threatened by human activities? If my spectacular sightseeing in Yellowstone has raised my environmental awareness, wouldn’t the national-parks-loving tourists be awakened by the infectious power of Mother Nature? Would the Chinese leadership understand that a network of national parks, on a par with Yellowstone and the like, relies not only on regulation and infrastructure building, but also, most importantly, on widespread awareness and education, and enduring efforts of preservation for all generations? 

On my way back from the Biscuit Basin, I bump into a pedestrian jam on the wooden bridge over the Firehole River. On the other side of the river, a uniformed ranger repeatedly shouts at the incoming tourists, “Stay away from the wild animal for at least 25 yards. Don’t risk your life.” His voice reverberated through the parking lot. I am in a hurry to get back as I overstayed a bit at the Sapphire Pool. I break through the crowd, and a bison is standing near the bridge. A crowd of tourists have circled the bull, keeping the proper 25-yard distance. He does not look any different from the one I saw a year ago. A big hairy brown beast. He rubs his body against a metal sign to shake off the ragged patches of fur on the shoulders. He does not seem to be bound by time. He just stands there next to the post as still as a statue. My experience tells me the waiting can take as long as my first bison jam with Baba. I look at my watch, then the flowing river, and the wild animal. My mind roams free. 

The colorful thermal pools are captivating like galaxies in the cosmos, and yet their high temperatures and acidity make them dangerous to be near, except for the thermophiles. The extreme microorganisms can live in extremely hot environments. Similarly, you may appreciate bison at a distance, or any wild animal as a matter of fact, but they are dangerous for human to approach unless you are their predator. 

As the bull saunters across the parking lot, he urinates right in the middle of the road before leaving. Does the bison feel ashamed? Or, should the onlookers feel embarrassed by watching the bison’s unabashed behavior? If only Baba were here. He must have been on cloud nine for being amused at the peeing of Yellowstone’s superstar. He would have poked fun at the bison’s nature’s call, like he did at obese Americans. 

***

Life has no take two. A year ago, in his lifetime, Baba had had his fleeting glance in the car at the alpine lakes, evergreen forests, majestic snow-capped peaks, thermal plumes and bison in the park, before he succumbed to altitude sickness. Because of that, we had to curtail our full Grand Loop drive. And I spent the rest of our travel days with him in Cody Reginal Health Hospital, an unexpected stop in our itinerary. C’est la vie. Life is not as predictable as Old Faithful. Baba had traveled in spite of his illness. He had remembered the highlights of our trip. I have found the photographic proof in his camera and in his raves about the trip with his social media friends. If to live one’s life to the fullest is to do memorable deeds, good or bad, and let them become our experience, our memories, and a reminder of what we have achieved in our life, I think our trip to Yellowstone National Park has left a mark in our shared memories. Those beautiful memories had stayed with Baba until the end of his life, and now are refreshed and enriched on my encore tour to the park. I come to realize why I gravitated to this place, this park, the scenery, the terrain, the flora and fauna, the rocks, the waters, the tranquility, the contradictions of nature, the smell, the touch of mountain rain, the taste of ephemeral happiness, and the people and landmarks in the small Western town of Cody. It is all about memory.

I look at myself in the picture taken against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks and a reflective lake outside the park, I was wearing Baba’s gray zipper sweatshirt emblazoned with the lettering “S-A-N-F-R-A-N-C-I-S-C-O”. And also that white Mongolian hat. Under the sun, it looks brighter than the snow on the distant peaks. The whiteness of the hat becomes as vivid as my memory, as if to vie for my attention to the wonderful life ahead.     


Karen Zhang is the author of the memoir, Golden Orchid: The True Story of an Only Child in Contemporary China. In addition to her online column, “Karen in America,” her work has appeared in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Times-Picayune and other publications. She is an executive master’s degree candidate in natural resources and global sustainability at Virginia Tech. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Read more at karenszhang.com.

The author: Emily Riley

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