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The Healing Power of the Great Outdoors

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Van Life Diaries: August 11, 2021

I finally made it to Yellowstone National Park, and I couldn't get out of the van.

After sleeping in a random pull-off in Grand Teton National Park the previous night, I rose at dawn and continued north as the sun crept over the eastern horizon, enjoying the peacefulness that comes with an early start. I was one of the first visitors to arrive at Yellowstone that morning, a place that I’d been dreaming about seeing since I was a little girl with wildlife posters plastered over my bedroom walls and a stack of National Geographics sitting on my nightstand.

One of the true joys of travel is the feeling of child-like giddiness that occurs whenever you arrive at a place that you've only dreamt about in the past. It's like meeting someone you really admire, an actor or author, for example, in real life, or hearing a live performance of your favorite song. That thrilling sense of something previously unattainable becoming suddenly so palpable, so accessible, so real.

Here I was, finally, in Yellowstone National Park!

I should have been ecstatic. Instead, as I navigated the early hours of that day, a heaviness started to creep in and invade my thoughts, making reality difficult to grasp.

Depression is like an imaginary cloud hanging over your head in an otherwise beautiful sky. You know it's not real, you know it doesn't make sense. But it takes over anyway, obscuring your mental vision and numbing your senses until the world all at once seems too big and complex to handle and too small and pathetic to mean anything at all.

Fighting my way through the fog, I drove to Old Faithful, figuring I’d begin with the most famous part of the park and then head out to do some hiking and wildlife viewing later on in the day.

I immediately regretted my decision.

Despite the early hour, the place was already packed with tourists. People flocked from every direction, blocking the road and crowding into nearby buildings, honking horns and fighting over parking. All at once I felt the little strength I still had dissipate. I maneuvered my van into a tight parking spot, stared out at the throngs of strange humans passing by, and lay down on my bed and started to cry.

Then I reached for my phone and called my boyfriend, who in his usual deadpan, zero frills manner, said,

"Get your ass out of bed. You didn't drive all the way out there to cry in your van all day."

He was right, of course. He usually is.

So I begrudgingly wiped my tears, put on some pants, and stepped outside, where I made my way over to the most famous geyser in the world. I had an hour before Old Faithful was set to dazzle us with her clockwork routine, so I sat on a bench and read my book while tourists from all over the world gathered around me, snippets of conversations in all different languages floating about on the late summer breeze.

Right on time, Old Faithful erupted, and everyone cheered.

As the crowd dispersed, I sat for a moment longer, breathing in the clean air. It was turning into a beautiful day, with a bright blue, cloudless sky overhead and a gentle wind to dampen the August heat. I had to admit, I already felt better just by being outside.

I finally stood and began to walk. Meander is perhaps a better term for my lethargic, reluctant gait. I still felt like I was fighting my way through quicksand and at any moment my mood might take me under.

But as I made my way through the Upper Geyser Basin, something happened. I admired the natural fountains erupting from the steamy depths of a land formed long ago atop volcanoes. I stared into the seemingly endless depths of the polychromatic pools, colored by bacteria that thrive in intense heat. I paused over the Firehole river and watched the steam rolling off the dark running water. I made it all the way to the famous Morning Glory pool and, gazing into that intensely colorful abyss, marveled at how on Earth something could be so beautiful.

I felt the heaviness lift, replaced by a feeling of wonder.

Feeling rejuvenated, I made my way back to the van and headed toward the Great Prismatic Pool, where I got out again, this time with more enthusiasm, and wandered down the narrow man-made path, built atop a steaming bed of piping hot water. Signs were posted everywhere warning of imminent doom if one were to fall overboard.

I stopped to admire pools of crystal-clear water half-hidden by billowing clouds of steam. I noticed bison tracks marching directly through those piping waters outlining the giant pool, and wondered out loud at the audacity of nature.

Just as the sun was setting, I arrived at the Lower Geyser Basin, where I continued to walk. At this point I was getting tired and hungry, and I had no idea where I was going to sleep that night. But I couldn’t seem to stop. Everywhere I turned there was another incredible display of nature's beauty. The overwhelming crowds were starting to disperse, and I found that the peace with which I’d started the day was now returning.

I passed a giant pool of red, bubbling goo that looked like a concoction created in a witch's cauldron, and I wondered for a moment whether I was still on Planet Earth.

As the day came to an end and the sun descended over the horizon, a giant geyser in the distance exploded in a spray of steam and hot water. The eruption reached toward the heavens just as the sun was falling in the opposite direction, and where the two collided it looked like the very sky had caught fire.

It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, and all I could think in that last moment of the day was,

"I'm so glad I got out of the van today.”

Writing and Photography by Teresa B. Schumacher

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