Anyone who watches PBS even sporadically knows that the early Europeans who settled the Americas were downright terrified of the natural world. At first their settlements clung to shorelines and they kept the dense forests, full of unknown creatures and other, incomprehensible humans, to their backs, behind fortifications whenever possible. Swamps, deserts, and high mountain passes often signified death.
Even as late as the 1800s, a lot of the nature paintings leave you with a vague sense of foreboding. I used to be bemused by this. I thought it was quaint, and simply due to ignorance.
But then I went to Yellowstone National Park and I quickly gained some perspective. This was the kind of nature those settlers encountered. Not the highly sanitized, easily accessible, and thoroughly understood nature that most of us come across, where all the animals do what you expect them to do (which is run away when you say shoo), and if you twist your ankle help will soon be on the way.
No. Yellowstone is hours away from any significant civilization, and indeed is itself hours across by car. I can’t even imagine what it would be like on foot. That kind of immensity and isolation is not something most Americans ever face. There’s no real way to explain it to those who haven’t. It can be daunting.
And there are bears that maul and wolves that run in packs and bison that will gore you and moose that can easily kick your a** if they’re in the mood. Step off the designated path and you can fall through the earth’s thin crust and have the skin boiled off your bones before you can say, “Westward, ho.” You can also freeze to death, drown, fall off cliffs, and be struck by lightning.
Mother Nature may be at her most beautiful in Yellowstone, but she’s also in a foul mood much of the time. It’s always a good idea to peek out the window before stepping out of your Winnebago, because you never know what will be waiting for you on the other side of the door. This is probably why 98 percent of tourists only view Yellowstone from the safety of their car.
Ah, but what a shame that is. Because Yellowstone is nature in its purest, most raw form. You will never experience anything like it. Venturing into it will make you understand exactly why settlers were so afraid of the natural world, but it will also make you realize why, in spite of that, and maybe even because of that, they pressed forward.