Despite a great tragedy in Jason’s family, Jason and I made a planned trip to Yellowstone National Park with my family work out. Although there were some schedule hiccups, weather glitches, foot wrenches, and strain-induced illnesses, I’m glad we chose to make this outing happen regardless of the circumstances. The experience was perfectly contrasting; cruising around Yellowstone in winter felt as alien as hanging with my family felt familiar.
Jason and I reserved a posh condo in West Yellowstone months ago for the purpose of exploring Yellowstone National Park during its most inhospitable season. We invited the hardiest of my family to join us. Via a self-selecting method, the “hardiest” ended up being my parents, sister, brother-in-law, and two nephews. The whole group, except for my parents, spent a day snowmobiling through the park; my parents opted to take a milder snowcoach.
When we headed out the morning of our snowmobile reservation, the temperature was -39 degrees F. Yes, you read that right, as in almost 40 degrees below zero. We had to wait for about an hour at the snowmobile center for the temperature to rise to about-20. Evidently, if you go snowmobiling in weather below -20 it’s a lot like an ice cream truck came into town and you’re the popsicles.
That a.m.’s -39 was about 30 degrees colder than I have ever been in my life. What did it feel like? It felt crunchy. Everything crackled from car doors to backpacks. Touching metal felt a lot like stabbing yourself in the hand. Sound seemed slow and muted. Oddly, other than a few weird things like that, -39 didn’t feel much different than 0. When you’re unthinkably cold, what’s 40 degrees less?
When temperatures finally hit the balmy negative twenties, we were able to depart on our private snowmobile tour of the park. Kristen didn’t take to snowmobile operating. After an incident with a snowbank, which resulted in a sprained ankle, she wouldn’t drive above 5 MPH. I was therefore tasked with taking over the driving of her machine. I was starting to come down with a respiratory infection, one that would eventually become my worst sickness in years, so I wasn’t feeling exceptional to begin with and the mighty negatives were taking their toll but when we hit the splendor of Yellowstone all of that was forgotten.
Yellowstone looked like a misplaced land with snow-masked hillsides and meadows framed between wavy vapors and steamy rivers beaded by ice chunks. It was unreal! Since only about 1000 tourists enter the park daily during the winter, the animals are rather sociable and uninhibited while they are unpleasantly cold. (That sounds like a lot of people until you consider that over 30,000 visitors encroach on Yellowstone every day during the summer months.) We met bald eagles, coyotes, elk, and trumpeter swans. We plowed right through a herd of lethargic bison. Moving among them on a snowmobile, with nothing but frigid air between you, is quite a different experience than passing them in a car. We traveled through a valley where plumes of geothermal steam billowed toward the sky and crept along the horizon in a hazy dance full of a motion at odds with the utter stillness of the rest of the scene.
Did I stay warm? Shockingly, yes. Thanks to -60-degree boots, two pairs of socks, various foot warmers, a down jacket, a down coat, a thermal top, a snowboarding jacket, three layers of thermal pants of various sizes to allow for their overlay, two glove liners, mittens, two balaclavas, half a dozen handwarmers, and one hideous one-piece snowmobiling suit I stayed unexpectedly cozy. How I even moved while wearing all of that remains a mystery. I wasn’t the exception; no one in our group got cold. In fact, Miles was so comfy that he kept falling asleep on the back of Jason’s snowmobile. It was nerve-racking cruising behind them while he slid this way and that in a speedy slumber.
Although our trip passed too quickly, we still reserved some time at the condo for poker and conversation. It was pleasant and mellow thanks to my great family.
What a memorable vacation! I will never forget the astonishing scenery, chummy wildlife, crinkly cold, and family warmth. Of course, I will also never forget how sick I was afterward. The day we left, my body was so worn out and ill that I could barely move. I slept the entire way home and had a fever the whole night. Yet, oh what a trip!