Stories Must Be Told. Yellowstone Disaster Part 3

We woke up cold, but not soaked. The newly formed creek had stayed a few feet from our tent, not inviting itself in overnight. 

In the last post, I laid out some context for what we were about to experience. Something historic. Something unexpected. Something expensive, and... really disappointing. 

After getting some coffee and hopping in the rental car to warm up, we started driving from our campsite down to the Lake Lodge on Yellowstone lake. As we rolled up to the beautiful historic lodge, my wife almost started crying. Something about the mountains and water touched her deeply, and when we walked inside and saw the place I knew someday I'd want to bring her back here for a trip, just for the two of us. But before we got inside, we encountered a surprise.

On the doors was a map of the park, with the entire top half highlighted, with a large note explaining that all of those roads were now closed due to damage from the rain. 

Remembering the small landslides we had seen the night before while driving those roads, I wasn't surprised. I figured they'd have it cleaned up in a day or so. No big deal. It could be worse, right?

We got more coffee and kept driving to the main attraction for the day: Old Faithful.

My sons have been asking to see old faithful for about 5 years, which is why we started planning this trip so long ago. After another hour of driving, we pulled up, walked over, and within just a few minutes, the geyser started shooting into the sky. An upside-down waterfall, as it had been described by early explorers.

I had planned to take the boys to the Old Faithful Inn, which is the largest log structure in the world. The architect had designed into the lobby a crows nest about 5 stories up- kind of an indoor treehouse. I had read about it online, and was excited to check it out. As part of their rites of passage, I had wanted to take them up there and talk about the quality I'm calling Whimsey. 

It had a sign on the stairs that read "Closed" and said something about an earthquake several decades ago making it not stable enough to allow foot traffic up to. "Seriously?!" I vented to myself in frustration. "You couldn't have fixed that by now? or maybe told the internet that it can't actually be visited?!"

I slowed down. "It could be worse," I tried to remind myself.

After patrolling the gift shop we headed over to the visitor's center. It was here that everything REALLY started sliding sideways. I overheard a Park Ranger urgently talking to a few people about the road closures. As I eaves-dropped on the conversation, I learned that all of the park entrances were closed. When I told her where we were camped, she told me we needed to call the campground immediately. 

Sending the family to the car to grab lunch, I walked back to the Inn to use the phone (we didn't have cell coverage in the park). The voice on the other end of the phone said, "IF you can get here, you need to come get your belongings. You are not going to be able to stay here tonight."

Cuss words.

It could be worse, right? 

That question wasn't helping anymore. After the Inn told us we couldn't stay there or at any other park inn that night, I realized the cold hard truth. Our long anticipated 5-day vacation in magical Yellowstone was bing cut down to 2.

Also, we didn't have a place to sleep that night. More cuss words. 

A nice guy in the lobby let me borrow his phone while I called 5 different hotels outside of the park, trying to find a bed for the night. I couldn't get through, until the last one told me they had one vacancy that night and the next, but it would cost me (about triple the cost I'd ever spent on a hotel room before- more cuss words.)

I started asking a new question: "How could it get worse?" I wondered.

I jogged back to the car. They had long since finished eating when I opened the door, and sat down to deliver the bad news. Tears ensued, including some of mine.

In order to salvage the day, I made a plan to leave them there to hike around and check out geysers while I drove back the way we had come to get our stuff. I would meet them at 3:45pm at the General Store. 

It was during this drive back to the campground two things happened. 1. The National Park Service decided to close and evacuate the ENTIRE park, and 2. The road closed. No seriously- After driving for an hour or so, I got 2 miles away from my destination to find that about a minute before I got there, a ranger had pulled up and closed the road.

I pleaded my case. He looked at me and told me that the road had buckled, and I couldn't get through that way. The only way in was to drive the entire south loop the other direction. 

"How could it get worse?" I wondered.

On the way back, I got stuck in a traffic jam while a tow truck blocked both lanes. When I finally got back to Old Faithful about an hour and a half after our appointed meeting time, the General Store was closed. The whole place looked deserted. Did I mention we didn't have cell phone coverage? "Where the heck is my family?" I wondered. I decided right then and there that I wasn't going to ask how this trip could possibly get worse again.

It didn't seem to matter. Things did get worse.

When I finally found them, they were watching Old Faithful go off for the 4th time that day. Without words I strode over to my wife and hugged her. We could feel each others agony, relief, and exhaustion. We then made the long journey around the loop and were finally able to make it back to the campground to pack up our stuff. 

Leaving the park, I asked the ranger, "Hey- are the roads open to Big Sky?" We needed to drive north to get to the town of Big Sky where our hotel was.

He half-smiled, half-frowned, and said, "Maybe. I don't know if you'll make it." 

Roads and bridges were washed out all over the place. While it was sketchy, we did in fact make it to the hotel.

To summarize the rest of our trip: I woke up the next day thinking about how we could maybe rescue our trip and head to the Tetons or Glacier National Park. My wife woke up with the worst migraine she's ever had. After a few hours, I abandoned all hopes of rescuing the trip, and I had to take her to the Emergency Room. I raised the white flag of surrender, moved our flights and flew home the day after that, waving a white flag of surrender, exhausted in every way. 

C u s s  w o r d s .

The NPS later said the flooding event that you likely saw video and pictures of a few weeks ago was a 500 year flood event. In fact, never in YNP history had the park been completely evacuated. How on earth, after years of anticipation, did I plan our vacation to happen at exactly that moment? Hours after we were driving some of those roads, they were gone. 

As you might be able to tell, the trip was legitimately traumatic. But at least we have a good story to tell, right? (Even if it's true, don't actually say that. Brene Brown says that's not helpful.)

You might be wondering where this particular post is going.

The answer: Sometimes a story just has to be told. It's a part of the grieving process that cannot be done alone.

For one, telling stories helps us wrap our minds around what actually happened to us. For weeks I was in a fog, literally still in disbelief that the Yellowstone disaster happened to us. Putting words to our experiences helps us understand that they are real.

Another reason stories must be told is that we need others to hear it and be with us- not to fix it, necessarily, to to feel with us. God didn't make us to be isolated in our grief. To be healthy individuals, we need to connect with others, and through that connection, honor the losses we endure. If we bottle in those stories, we not only bury our emotions, but we bury our own selves in a hole of aloneness. 

Stories must be told. What is yours? 

What story do you hold inside that needs to be told?

What deep disappointment needs to be shared with another?


Cody Buriff, Director of Resource Initiatives

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