Justine Journey to Yellowstone
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Justine's Journey to Yellowstone
When the phone rang, the words on the other end could never have been predicted. My sister-in-law's mother told me about her other daughter's au-pair wanting to visit Yellowstone before flying back to France. Long story short, I was invited to join Justine's journey.
Our first time meeting was when we picked up our rental car, the third member of our adventure over the next 17 days. Justine's energy matched mine immediately, giving us both confidence for our phenomenal excursion we were about to embark on together. The following day, it would all begin. With our Toyota Corolla Texas Taxi, we hit the road to the northwest. Entering Wisconsin was nothing exciting for me, but Justine felt she was beginning her tour of the United States. Spotting the capitol building in Madison, driving through country-road farmland, and gazing off Granddad Bluff in LaCrosse enthralled our first day before landing at the Wildcat Campground on the Mississippi River in Minnesota.
Day two led us across South Dakota to Badlands National Park. We walked trails, met other travelers, and camped a comfortable night until an intense wind attacked our tents. Justine began her day with a jog, a shower-bag shower, and apple & oatmeal breakfast while I read my book, meditated, and brewed a morning coffee. This morning routine would continue over the next two weeks. Each day would provide us with new exciting environments to motivate and inspire our adventure. Custer State Park allowed us to swim in Sylvan Lake while Wind Cave National Park tempted us to walk five miles beside prairie dogs and big bison. Southwest South Dakota is a beautiful part of the country, most notably for the art-in-nature phenomenon that is Mount Rushmore. I knew of a free rock-climber's camp only miles up the road that allowed us to see the magnificent monument under lights and give Justine a running destination the following morning. She said, "It felt like George Washington was watching me, cheering as I go!"
Entering Wyoming felt like we'd officially reached the west. It required a lot of desert driving, but Bighorn National Forest provided one of the most spectacular roads in the country. Continuing along, we discovered another unforgettable road on our way to Boysen State Park where we camped in a spectacular valley, cooked a tasty open-fire dinner, and swam in the Wind River to begin our day. On our way to Yellowstone, we took a necessary detour into Montana to drive over the jaw-dropping Beartooth Pass. Mother Nature showed us who's boss displaying mind-bending views before a very aggressive thunderstorm roared above our tents beside Lily Lake. We kept smiles on our faces by playing cards, drinking local Montana beer, and dreaming about life beside a lantern in my tent. Once the attack let up, we pulled out the cooking gas to fry up some eggs and fresh vegetables. Intense rainstorms are a reminder of how powerful nature can be, but it's also the reason we see such beauty on this planet.
Finally... we arrived; Yellowstone National Park!! It's a very accomplished feeling entering that park. Justine's mission had finally come true. Sometimes reaching an exciting location can be a total letdown, but the weather was gorgeous, wildlife was out, and Justine loved every step in the vast land. Our first walk brought us behind a waterfall that eliminated camera-travelers from our sights. Standing at overlooks will only allow so much, but taking a few steps behind some bushes might open your eyes to a wild world with so much more going on. Now that Justine knew that my mission was to see the secrets of Yellowstone, I gained her trust in trying things the 'Kyle Style.' Our next attempt at getting off the beaten track included a very slow, one way gravel road that climbed up the side of a mountain. Our wheels, Sexy Texi, had no trouble handling the beastly landscape. We stopped for lunch and dried our tents on top of the mountain, looking out over the Yellowstone landscape all around. Not one other car passed us during our break. We felt alone in the Yellowstone wilderness!
Our only battles with covid concerns existed at the tourist locations. Many people wore masks while some certainly did not, but it's important to not let any person affect your reason for visiting places like Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful; they're spectacular natural landmarks that everybody should see (and appreciate) in person.
Prior to this journey, my biggest surprise was that Justine managed to score a campground in Yellowstone for five nights. Finding camp has always felt impossible without booking at least one season in advance. Not only did Justine score a tremendous goal with this one, but the amazement continued when I learned it was Yellowstone's 104th birthday celebration. Happy Birthday Yellowstone! Our campground in Bridge Bay was perfectly secluded from other campers with pine trees all around, elk wandering through each morning, and fantastic fires each night to cook sweet potatoes and various vegetables while we connected over bottles of wine.
Justine wanted one special tribute in honor of her sister, which would provide us both one of the most remarkable Yellowstone memories any visitor can claim; we went horseback riding. I had so much fun riding my rambunctious five year old named 'Farley' while Justine enjoyed her tame veteran 'Just Kidding.' Our hour ride through the territory was a special experience that neither of us will ever forget. Continuing the spectacular final day in the park, Justine found a ten mile walk to Observation Peak, giving us a desolate 360 degree view from the center of Yellowstone. Our bond was growing stronger, but culminated over dinner as two black wolves howled at the moon while we watched a grey wolf pleasantly trot across the stream we were eating beside. Justine looked at me to say, "Yellowstone is just amazing!"
Sunday was our day to depart, but we were ready for something new. Justine could never have predicted what her eyes would see at Grand Teton National Park. Less than twenty miles to the south, the natural landscapes change abruptly. I personally find the Tetons to be one of the most impressive mountain ranges in the entire world. Sitting beside Jackson Lake, listening to waves crash while staring up at the giant beasts stands as one of the most pleasant afternoon activities I've ever found. Justine enjoyed learning the French influence on the park as Grand Tetons means "Big Breasts" based on French explorers titling it because of their view from afar.
Saying goodbye to our fourth national park brought us into Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a fresh shower in a very clean, well maintained Recreation Center and a turkey & avocado sandwich in the city built around the wild-west vibe. Rain kicked in so we took it as a sign to drop out of the Wyoming mountains for a night in the Utah desert. The drive was long, but the variety was original to Justine's eyes. The speed of travel continued as we cruised through more desert, entering Colorado before climbing back up in search of Rocky Mountain National Park. There is no better way to start a new month (September 1st, 2020) than entering a new state, which ignited an electricity in our car that we hadn't felt yet on our journey.
Every great adventure must come to a close at some point. Leaving the mountains would require many long hours through flat farmland in Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois to return for Chicago before Justine's flight back to France. Our highlights include a fantastically colorful sunset in the wide open Nebraska sky over Lake McConaughy, road-trip games based on people, places, and things we experienced during our time out west, and a final night on the Mississippi River (once again) that may stand as the best night we shared on the entire excursion. After a long drive, the mind can get warped pretty easily, but Justine persevered by concluding her day with a run and fresh shower. I saw an opportunity to heroically finish our time together. While she was gone, I prepped and cooked our remaining food for dinner, lit a perfect final fire for our trip reflection, and uncorked the exquisite bottle of French wine that we bought for the last night's celebration.
In our 17 day adventure around the United States, we experienced all angles of life. We bonded tighter than either of us could have expected or predicted. We learned that this world is full of INDIVIDUALS instead of categories of people that can easily be judged by. Our hope coming out of this fantastic journey is for others to share the same connection with a stranger that we have created together.
Happy traveling to all the good-people around the world!! Stay safe, but have fun.