"Do you need a map of the park?"
I nod. "Yes please."
She hands over my receipt and the glossy pamphlet map along with a bright orange piece of paper with an image of a bear on it.
"Enjoy your visit."
As I pull away from the gate my eyes are drawn down from the towering pine trees and winding road to the illuminated gas light on the dashboard. The lingering smile on my face fades, but I refocus on the narrow road ahead of me. Slanted sunlight dapples through the trees and sparkles off the creeks that follow the road. It is such breathtaking beauty that I nearly cause an accident or three. Shaking my head, I scan a sign which confirms that I'm going in the right direction. Though I asked for a map, I have my own and I know it like the back of my hand. My only worry is that I'll run out of gas before I get there, but it doesn't matter that much. Other cars and RV's crowd the road around me, especially in places where the steam of geothermal activity drifts up from the ground. I grit my teeth as I make my way past them.
Eventually the traffic thins and valley meadows with rivers fall away to cliffs and canyons. Though the pine trees are ever-present, some are only dead, blackened spires left from wildfires. The car begins to sputter, and I search for a place to pull off. Budding from the road just past the next turn I spy a turnoff and pull into it. I turn off the car and retrieve my backpack and walking stick from the passengers seat. Scanning around, I see no signs or other cars, but still I don't linger. I shoulder my backpack, turn from the car and walk straight away from it without looking back. The ground is soft and marshy except where fallen pines crisscross it, and soon my faded tennis shoes are soaked through with dirty-smelling water. But the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the place overwhelm me, and soon the road has disappeared behind the trees.
Pine, dust, and the scent of marshy water become more poignant as the warmth of the day fades into the chill of the night. Sometimes the going is slow because the trees are so close together that I cannot squeeze between them and have to choose a different route. Once or twice I startle a squirrel or chipmunk, but I don't stop to see which. As long as it isn't a bear, I'm alright. My stomach rumbles with hunger but I don't stop walking because night is falling. The mosquitoes are relentless. They follow me in a cloud and buzz in my ears and land on my hands when they can find no other area of exposed skin. In my mind the rises and falls in the landscape and the swift but cold, shallow river I cross pass on the map in head with a red X coming closer and closer.
Exhausted, feet cold and sore, I break through into a clearing and know that I have arrived. I am as far from a point of civilization here as I can be without climbing a mountain. Inhaling deeply, I ponder the wilderness. It is a strange place. So remote and feral, yet we call it ours. How can this land, that could swallow me up, be owned by the public? As I stand deep within the park's belly listening to the wailing of coyotes, I know that this land is wild and I am Alone. Papers and signposts mean nothing on this hillside. I take off my backpack and sit in the tall, scratchy grass watching the darkening sky. I will sit here until blue turns to purple and purple turns to black, and then the blackness is filled with stars. Here, I will come face to face with the place called Yellowstone.