As I saw yet another bus full of Japanese tourists take pictures in front of a steaming Yellowstone waterfall, I started to think about tourism. Yellowstone National Park has been attracting visitors for almost 150 years. The rangers tell stories and show photos of how people used to tour the park, riding around in a stage couch for $50 a head. People threw hankies in whirlpools and went fishing on top of geysers. Bison were hunted almost to extinction and invasive lake trout were brought in to entertain anglers. If you visited the park even 60 years ago, you would still be feeding garbage to bears. If it was only 20 years ago you’d see people fighting forest fires.
Most importantly, 20 years ago very few people would have had cameras, and those that did would be using film. The advantage and disadvantage of digital is that the number of pictures is only limited by the memory card you bought, and most cards can easily hold several days worth of severe shutter bugging. I was surprised at how many people visiting Yellowstone had really big, expensive, fantastic looking cameras, though that might be skewed to the location. If you want to take advantage of a nice camera, Yellowstone’s the place to go. I’ve mentioned before that one of my travel hobbies is taking pictures of people taking pictures. It happened so often in Yellowstone that after a while I stopped taking advantage of the opportunities.
Were this 20 years ago, I would still see families and Japanese tourists. People would still be doing dumb things like getting too close to the bison. But I wouldn’t see cameras. More over, I wouldn’t see people experiencing the park through their camera. They look through the lens instead of looking with their eyes. I do it too, and I hate that I do it. But sometimes I just don’t know how else to “experience” something in a way that feels complete. If I just look at it I wonder, “Have I stared the right amount? Have I looked long enough to make a good memory?”
On what was going to be my last geyser stop before making the long drive back to my cabin, I ran into a couple I’d met on a ranger hike that morning. The woman stopped me and told me that I shouldn’t waste my time on this particular boardwalk, and instead should hike up the nearby hill at Fairy Falls for a bird’s eye view.
Her husband tried to argue that it wasn’t a complete waste to see this area as well, but she said it would be dark before long and I probably didn’t have time for both. She showed me the pictures on her camera comparing the view she just saw on the boardwalk to what she saw from the hilltop above. The hilltop photo looked amazing. They gave me directions on where to go, and warned me that I’d have to climb over logs to get to the top. I asked if they felt sure I could get to the top and back before nightfall, and the woman promised it would only take 20-30 minutes.
“You’re young, you’ll be fine,” she assured me.
I parked my car at Fairy Falls and started down the wide gravel bike path towards the hill. Before long I was almost directly opposite the large geyser I had been heading towards when the couple stopped me. To my left I saw the makings of a trail, though it wasn’t marked. This wasn’t an official trail, but it was pretty well-worn. It was steep and dangerous looking, and I’m morally opposed to going off the official trails. However it occurred to me that this path was obviously popular, and the park hadn’t chosen to mark it off in any way. It was too tempting. I began to climb.
As promised, the hill was very steep. There were logs to climb over and around, and plenty of places where I couldn’t make my next step without grabbing onto something for support. It was about 50% steep hill hike, 50% dangerous wall climb. I was huffing and puffing and worried I might loosen a log and cause a landslide. I felt better once I started seeing other tourists above and below me. A group of Russians even had a 6 year old kid with them.
I stopped to rest, turning back to look down at the pool. I wondered if I had gone far enough to get the full view. I knew it wasn’t where the couple had gone, since there were still too many trees blocking the view and the photo she showed me was unobstructed. I’ve come this far, I thought. I might as well keep going.
When I reached the top of the hill I was immediately reassured that I’d made the right choice. Not only were the trees out of the way, but with every 10 feet in altitude the colors in the pool became more defined. I started to see the way in which they branched out from the pool, and the whole shape became more interesting. I took my pictures and sat down on a log. I stared for a long time. I was very tired and very hot, and I needed the break. But once I cooled down and got my breath back, I wondered if I should leave. It was so hard to get up there, I didn’t want to give it up unless I was definitely done enjoying the view.
But the view is there forever. There will never be a natural end to your experience. You can never look at a beautiful sight for long enough. I guess that’s why we take pictures.