Jay slowly skidded around the corner of the tight mountainous road, with Pika following closely behind. The engine’s dull roar combined with the heater, set to 80 degrees, lulled every passenger to sleep. Well, almost every passenger, Jenny was as wide awake as the sun on a hot August day. She could hardly blink for fear of missing a single snow-frosted pinecone. She had never seen anything quite like the view before. All her life, Jenny lived among the mountains, watching the sun come and go over the horizon, but never in her life had she seen anything as breath-taking as the Lamar Valley. As her classmates dreamt away the early morning hours, she thought they too would be mesmerized by the glowing skyline and pastel colors that filled the air. She considered waking them but decided to leave them at rest; Jenny wanted to be selfish with this memory; she wanted it to be all hers. She sat in silent admiration until the sun was waving hello over the tips of the mountains, then she, too, dozed off into oblivion.
She was woken up by the sounds of six hungry students tearing into the lunches they had made the night before. The aroma of grape fruit-leather and goldfish crackers filled every crevice of the car until the smell awoke the hunger in every last student. The sound of chewing filled in the silence that Jenny had so wanted to hold onto. But the silence had abandoned the vehicle the moment the first fruit leather package was torn open. It was then replaced with the low murmurs of morning chit chat. Some students discussed what they would be missing in Mr. Rzaza’s AP English class, while others ranted about their problems at their jobs. It seemed crazy that most of the students on the trip had only begun talking yesterday. Even though they had been going to the same school for years, most of the students had not said more than three words to one another before meeting in the school parking lot to embark on their journey. And now, they were talking like they had been friends for years. It is crazy how much one can learn about one another when you don’t have the world of technology distracting you. That was Jenny’s favorite part of the experience—from the moment the students set foot in the vehicles, there was a ban on cellphones.
When the caravan finally reached an area with a large group of ‘Wolfies’ (resident wolf enthusiasts near Yellowstone), they stopped and evacuated the vehicles. There were already six scopes set up alongside a group of tourists with binos that were all gazing onto the same mountainside. The students’ excitement began to build up, and they could not wait to see what was on the other side of those scopes. One by one, the students lined up behind the scopes, patiently awaiting their turn. Each student walked away looking like they had seen Santa Claus himself, their eyes wide with wonder, their faces frozen with an expression of pure excitement. As Jenny approached the tripod, she hesitated. What if what she was seeing wouldn’t live up to the anticipation she was feeling? But the hesitation was quickly shoved aside by her overwhelming need to see what was on the mountain ridge. As she peered through the scope at what seemed to be a large fur covered rock, she couldn’t understand what was so enticing to everyone. Just as these thoughts were entering her brain, the rock seemingly shapeshifted. It wasn’t a rock at all; it was one of the most majestic creatures that she had ever seen. It was powerful yet graceful; lonesome yet not lonely; it was confined to the park, yet it was the epitome of freedom. That wolf was silently roaming throughout her thoughts for the rest of the day.
This excitement lingered in the students as they returned to that mountainside throughout the day and relived the moment in which their eyes gazed upon the creatures. Even as the group sat eating lunch among the snowdrifts, they recounted the awe that each of them felt when they saw the wolves through the scopes. As the sun shone down on the valley floor, the students talked and laughed with one another. They all sat around, playing games and making the best of memories while the surrounding snow glistened as if it were made up entirely of diamonds. Not a single student could feel their toes. Their noses were as red as ripe cherry tomatoes, but no one seemed to care. They were having the time of their lives; throwing snowballs, making snow angels, and singing “I Want it That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. There wasn’t a care in the world that could dampen their spirits; they were the physical embodiment of joy.
As the steam streamed upward off of the travertine and into the atmosphere, the students, with their eyes fixated on the thermal features, shivered and longed to step foot in those gloriously hot pools, knowing full well they would be scorched instantaneously. But they did not care. It was a mere half an hour later that they were longing to go back to that feeling of numbness and cold. They hiked, for half a mile, up a mountainside; the feeling of being cold was long gone by the time they finally took a break, during which every student took off their coats and plunged themselves as deep into the snow as possible. When they reached the top of the trail, and they still had a mile to go. Tracking mule deer was shaping up to be more complicated than they had anticipated. When they reached the top of the last snowy hill, they had practically given up on locating the deer. It was only after a student whipped out the telemetry equipment when they finally heard the signal. The mule deer they had been tracking all day had been right under their noses. When they peered into the forested valley below, there she was, along with her herd. The group was so excited that they had tracked her down, so they sat around gawking at their achievement until the entire herd had disappeared from their sight.
On their next excursion, they were snowshoeing up a steep hill to get a better look at a herd of bison. The hill seemed to be never-ending as they grew close to a peak only to see another up ahead. Every student’s feet were sore and tired, but they kept on going up and up the hill until they were at the top. When they finally reached the top, Jenny threw off her pack and collapsed into the snow alongside her classmates. They were exhausted. They all sat there in the snow silently. For a moment or two, they didn’t even remember why they had gone up that hill in the first place. But then the silence was broken, and they heard it—the low, quiet snorting of a bison plowing through the snow. The group looked out into the low laying field and saw 30-50 head of bison. There were full-grown adults, juveniles, and close to 10 young of the year. The bison were like freckles upon the earth. As Jenny watched the bison graze the newly uncovered grass, she removed her snowshoes and stepped into the deep snow that lay beneath her. She wanted to feel what the bison felt. She, too, wanted to take on her obstacles head-on. From that day on, she vowed to live like a bison. She would be strong yet gentle, stubborn to the point of never faltering on her beliefs, and she would be a force of nature to be reckoned with.
When they finally arrived back at the lodge, the students felt like they had run a marathon in their snowshoes. They reluctantly abandoned the car’s comforting warmth to brave the abrasive wind and negative degree weather between themselves and the lodge entrance. When Jenny finally reached the structure’s back door, she removed the boots that were frozen to her feet and raced inside into the furnace-heated sitting area. That night there were no leftovers from dinner; every student went back for thirds. After dinner was cleaned up, everyone gathered around the rug that covered the hardwood floors and played a card game that none understood. Although they hadn’t an idea what the goal of the game was, nobody seemed to notice. There were too many laughs and inside jokes being shared that no one cared how tired they were. It wasn’t until everyone resigned to their cabins that their exhaustion finally overwhelmed them. All through that night, miraculous scenes danced around Jenny’s subconscious mind. That night she was not herself; she was so much more.
When morning came, she could vaguely remember the feeling of the wind as she raced through the snow-covered forest. She could barely recall the heaviness of each of her steps as she traveled along the snow-surrounded banks of the Boiling River. Although she couldn’t remember much of her dreams from the night before, she could not shake the feeling of overwhelming serenity that entranced her. She wanted—so badly—to capture those feelings and seal them away so that nothing could ever change them. As she walked toward the lodge that morning, the snow was whiter, the trees were taller, and the world held more possibilities than it had before. She couldn’t figure out why, but she knew that everything would be okay from that moment on.
On their last day in Yellowstone, the students ventured down to the river that lay below the lodge. The air that morning was tranquil. There was only a light breeze that occasionally blew the hair out of Jenny’s face. As the students sat, littered down the riverbank, not a sound could be heard over the rushing water. As the current continued, Jenny watched the water rush over the rocks and disappear. She found herself envying the river. The river lived a nomadic life; full of constant motion and movement. It flowed and flowed until an obstacle arose, and then it would chart a new path and keep flowing. Jenny wanted to be as dedicated to her purpose as the river was to its. But dedication is hard to come by. In a world where people change so much about who they are, it is hard to find many people as dedicated as the river. It never stopped flowing. Even in the harshest of environments, the river would keep going. At that moment, Jenny realized that even though she could not be the river, she could let the river guide and inspire her life. She would live as the river did. She would adapt to hostile environments, push through and erode the obstacles that stood in her path, and never give up until she got to where she was going.
On the morning that they were to drive back, a deep silence had fallen over the entire group. Everyone moved slowly as to prolong their inevitable departure out of the park. As the students packed up their backpacks, they talked, laughed, and made plans for when they returned home. It was a weird feeling, heading back to a life that had been on pause for a week. As Jenny took one last look back at the lodge, she came to the heart-wrenching realization that she would never again set her eyes on the Yellowstone Lodge. As the cars pulled out of the driveway and turned onto the highway, the entire vehicle turned their heads and stole one last glance at a place that will live on in their memories forever. On the way back home, laughter and good conversation filled the cars to the brim. At one point of the eight-hour drive,the trip leaders gave the students the most difficult riddles they could think of. One of the riddles took the students two hours of consecutive trying to solve. Throughout the whole drive, the students in the car took turns choosing songs, and when a song that everyone knew played, the entire vehicle would sing and dance. Jenny couldn’t think of a time where she had had more fun. She never wanted the ride to come to an end.
As the vehicles pulled up to their destination, the students exited into the parking lot. When they were in the parking lot, the students took their last pictures, hugged one last time, and tried to take in everything. Jenny and the others were doing everything in their power to prolong their return to the real world. Slowly, cars came and, one by one picked up the students. No one knew what would happen on Monday when they would return to school. Would their lives revert to how they were before they got to know each other, or would they continue the new friendships they forged? That was still to be decided, but what they all knew for sure was that none of them would ever forget about the time they spent at the Yellowstone Lodge.
Visit EPI's Yellowstone Wildlife Ecology Program Impacts page to see how EPI inspires and empowers local students in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
About the Author
My name is Jenny Stoker. I love nature, my family, and a nice cup of hot chocolate on a frosty February morning. I am currently attending the University of Montana-Western to pursue a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education. My life was changed forever by my experiences with Ecology Project International in Yellowstone. I loved my first experience in 2019 so much that I applied and went again in the early months of 2020. My love for nature was heightened by all of the breath-taking aspects of Yellowstone. As an elementary teacher, I plan to integrate love and respect for Earth's natural beauty into my classroom, and I am unbelievably grateful for the experiences that I have had with EPI. I hope to pass on the passion for Yellowstone that I have developed because of them.