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A Yellowstone Diary
by Homer Page
Several years ago, a blind man made an effort at sailing alone across the Atlantic. William Buckley, the publisher of National Review and a lifelong sailor attacked this effort for its absurdity. He didn’t argue that it was meaningless for him to do so. Buckley said that the joy of sailing is found in what one sees while on the water. Sunrise, sunset, animal life and infinite stretches of seascape that remind us of our place in the universe require sight to appreciate. They are what provides one with the essence of the sailing experience.
Buckley’s point of view is not the only one possible, however. I have enjoyed outdoor adventure activities all my life, so Bill Buckley’s comments have been both offensive and challenging to me. I have long wanted to share with the sighted world some of the joy with which I experience the beauty of nature and the excitement of outdoor adventure.
During July, I had occasion to be in Jackson, Wyoming. The Jackson Hole area is the gateway to the Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. It is one of the most beautiful and amazing locations on earth. My visit to this area presented me with an opportunity to respond to Mr. Buckley’s remarks and, at the same time, to answer questions posed by many people who have asked how a blind person really does participate in nature’s great outdoors.
Unlike the lone sailor, I traveled with a friend who shared the experience with me. My pleasure was greatly enhanced by her description of the rich carpet of wildflowers that surrounded us, the imposing snow-capped mountains that rose so sharply from the floor of the valley and the blue sky that seems to go on forever. She also acted as a guide on our hikes into rugged terrain and drove a rental car. Her long experience in the field of work with the blind as well as her artist’s eye and love for nature made her an ideal traveling companion and colleague with whom to undertake this project.
A Note About Sensitivity
The efforts of the last five decades to make our society more accessible to persons with disabilities have changed many of our national park facilities and significantly improved our level of acceptance. Park information materials routinely discuss accessibility. Accessible parking spaces, curb cuts, ramps and accessible restrooms adorn many locations. Jackson’s shuttle program has a vehicle that meets ADA specifications. However, one must make reservations 48 hours in advance. The hotel where I stayed has raised numbers and Braille to mark the rooms. Large print, taped and Braille materials are readily available on request, but the greatest change is in the attitudes of the service providers and ordinary people whom we encountered.
The acceptance with which I was received came as a pleasant surprise. Only once did someone ask my companion what I wanted. No one tried to seize my cane or tell me that my meat was at 6:00. Few people stared or jumped out of the way when we passed on the sidewalk. We saw a few other people with disabilities. They, too were simply going about their activities with no fuss. That sense of normalcy that came from appropriate accommodations combined with a common sense acceptance added enormously to the pleasure of the visit.
Jackson Hole is a long, flat valley surrounded by mountain ranges. The Snake River cuts diagonally across it. We flew into the airport from the east. Rugged mountains stretched out below us. I could clearly imagine the bare rock summits, the snow white glaciers, the shades of green running down from the snow and all of it set in a deep blue dome. Raised maps have given me an idea of the contours of these mountains. Skiing and climbing have taught me about the steepness and the scale. My companion’s descriptions painted insightful pictures in my mind. The emotion in her voice communicated the awe and the beauty that the scene below evoked. I was sharing fully in the magic of the Tetons.
Just outside of Jackson, one finds a National Elk Preserve. Over 15,000 elk winter there. Male elk drop their antlers each year. The people of Jackson collect these antlers and use them in the most interesting ways. I saw a rocking chair made from elk horns. Antlers have become almost a trademark for Jackson. The town square has an arch on each corner constructed from antlers.
One hears the clip-clopping of a horse-drawn stagecoach day and night. In the evening, a Wild West shoot out is staged in the town square. The gunshots ring out on schedule. The smell of cooking meat permeates the air. The smell of leather goods spreads out from the shops adding to the western theme with which the town makes its appeal to the tourists. I felt comfortable exploring the western artwork with my fingers. Jackson provides sensory richness for one who is alive enough to explore it.
Old Faithful and Mystic Falls
Yellowstone Park is about an hour’s drive from Jackson and Old Faithful geyser is about another hour inside the park. We wanted to experience the famous landmark so we drove to the thermal area in Yellowstone. We were pleasantly surprised to find Jackson and Yellowstone Lakes along the way, as well as Kepler Cascade. But Old Faithful would have been worth even a much longer drive.
We used the information provided at the visitors center to educate ourselves about the geology and the mechanics that cause the famous eruptions. Then we walked out to the viewing platform. Soon, the ground began to steam. I could feel the heat and moisture. The rumbling sounds were accompanied by the easily recognizable smell of sulfur. The towering stream of mist filled the air and reminded each viewer of the power and mystery of our planet.
We left Old Faithful and went two miles down the road to the Fire Hole River. The basin between Old Faithful and the river is filled with hot pools and small geysers. A boardwalk weaves through the area and brings one to the edge of these thermal holes. The stroller is filled with sensory stimulation. There are a myriad of sounds and smells, but the most impressive stimulation comes from the feel of steam on one’s skin.
A mile upstream from the thermal basin is Mystic Falls. We left the boardwalk and hiked to the falls. As we approached the bottom of the falls, we could hear the roaring water. We scrambled down the bank to get near the river. Small vents in the bank released steam and boiling water. I put my hand close to one of them and felt the heat and moisture. We climbed up the boulder-strewn trail to the top of the falls. I used my cane to test the footing and followed my companion by linking a finger in one of her belt loops. We climbed to the spot 70 feet above the falls and stopped to listen to the water as it tumbled over 100 feet to the pool below. Standing above the falls, I could hear the water fall from three separate locations. The symphony of sounds filled the canyon and defined its walls. I was awed by the power of the river.
Rafting the Snake
Even on a warm day, the guides recommend wearing a wet suit. The water in the Snake is cold and there is always a chance of flipping over. On a scale of 1 to 6, the rapids we ran were 2’s and 3’s. Rafters are also participants. Six of us were asked to paddle the raft. I volunteered to be one of the paddlers.
Our course was eight miles long. It took us through half a dozen or more white water rapids. Along the way, one could hear wildlife along the banks and birds in the air, but the dominant sound was the roar of the rapids. Some holes were too dangerous to take the raft through, so our guide steered us around them. The sound of roaring water just off the side of the raft caused a thrill to run through my body. Then suddenly, we were in white water. The raft was tossing. Water was filling the boat. It was time to paddle hard.
Momentum takes the raft through the rapids so paddlers have to work as the raft passes through the white water. I listened to the man in front of me so I could paddle in harmony with my fellow rafters. I sat on the edge of the raft to paddle better. My feet were wedged in the bottom of the rubber boat and I stayed with the movement of the raft. The action was exciting. I was confident and joyful.
A Breakfast Ride in the Foothills
My sweatshirt felt good in the chilly morning air. My companion and I waited for our horses to be saddled. The stable manager asked each rider what his or her riding skill level might be. I told him that mine was good. He did not accept my assessment. He asked my companion how well I rode. She told him "good" even though we had never ridden together. This was the only insulting behavior that I encountered during the whole trip.
Soon, our horses appeared. We mounted and the ride began. I have ridden all my life. I carry my cane in one hand. I hold it close to my body so as not to scare the horse. I rein with my other hand. I carry my cane with me so that if I dismount during the ride I will have it.
We rode along the Snake River. My horse knew her job well, and she happily followed the trail. In time, the trail left the river. We began to climb into the foothills and toward our rendezvous with breakfast.
After the rafting of the day before, the morning’s cool, relaxing ride was a welcome relief. The sounds of the river, the smells of the meadow and pine, and the closeness of the horses stimulated my senses. I was definitely ready for breakfast. The bacon and eggs and pancakes were cooked out-of-doors and were especially tasty.
The Richness of Life
None of us wish to deny that sight or hearing or the full use of one’s body and mind is valuable and a potential source of great pleasure. I deliberately use the word "potential". No matter what one’s physical or mental attributes, if one does not cultivate the ability to be fully aware of one’s surroundings, the richness of life’s experience will be diminished. A person with a disability may learn to sharpen his or her capacity to experience the fullness of life. Who can say how much any of us maximizes our ability to get from life all that it has to offer. However, my experience tells me that no one has the right or the capacity to call someone else’s experience meaningless. I do not know if Mr. Buckley’s life is rich, but I do know that mine is.