Yellowstone National Park was my family’s home for three days in July this year. I remember craning to see it in the distance on our way there, watching the cloud shadows spreading across the rumpled mountains like thin gray silks. We spent the days seeing the lakes and cascades and geysers, one of which was a steaming, bubbling cave called “The Dragon’s Mouth.” (I had to search up that name—my dad, short of memory, kept calling it “The Devil’s Asshole,” which became the only name I remembered). A herd of Canadian tourists crowded the rim, conversing in their twangy French about the buffalo that was lying right by the geyser with all the regality and poise of a classical statue.
“BISON ARE WILD AND AGGRESSIVE. DO NOT APPROACH,” warned signs all across the park. The park service also heavily advised the use of bear spray (which, like bug spray, I thought you were supposed to apply all over your skin to repel them), but the only bear we ever saw was a black bear the size of my little brother that fumbled across a grassy swale alongside the road, causing a traffic jam of Asian photographers. The rangers also swore that hiking without two or three changes of wool socks would guarantee certain death and hung diagrams in the bathroom which sternly instructed people not to squat like a gargoyle atop the toilet while pooping.
Despite their fearful advertisements, the park isn’t all that strict on safety measures, because they don’t need to be. Hundreds of tourists sat around Ol’ Faithful every hour to watch it go off, but nobody ever left the benches around the geyser and stumbled into the blowhole. Only a split-rail fence stood between my family and LeHardy Falls, but nobody careened into the river. Along with the rest of the tourists, we just watched the rainbow glisten in the churning spray before going back to our campground for lunch.
Yellowstone’s fame and beauty bring in campers from all around, and they pack them in the campground like sardines. My mother helped an Australian college student wash his dishes; a Mormon from South Africa let my little brother borrow his maul to split wood; we met a family from Minnesota who played Frisbee with us and shared their firewood with the Chinese family next to them; I showed the son of an Indian immigrant couple how to start a fire with flint and steel while his dad talked with my Aggie older brother about Texas A&M, which turned out to be his alma mater.
Eventually I realized the great miracle: here before us was a diverse, safe, and friendly community, but guiltless and spontaneous. Here was the reality that progressives had been promising to create in America for decades, but free of the quotas, the protests, and the coercion that were all supposed to be part of the necessary sacrifice. Here was a fractured America made whole. All it took was a common love—in this case, a common love for the natural beauty of our country. Next to Kepler Cascade, I saw a paunchy, knife-sporting redneck straight out of a political cartoon cheerily letting a black family pat his German shepherd. I’m fairly sure I even saw a camo hijab. Watching elk graze beneath the mottled shade of pine trees, or feeling our lungs tighten in the cold blue water of the lake, or bending life into our fingers above the morning campfires that burned bright with the sap-soaked wood and sent smoke up to mingle with our steaming breath, we camped together at the convergence of uncountable paths all winding to the alluring majesty of the American West. It was not the park administration or social forces that compelled us, but a common love, hardly found and easily forgotten. I wondered what such common loves were left for us to gather around back home.
As we left the park, my father read Psalm 46 to the family while I struggled to hoard in my head the sights that I probably will never see again: the tufts of steam glowing atop the rivers in the cold dawn; the pillars of geyser smoke rising from the faraway woods like unmanned, eternal campfires; the buffalo watching us alongside the road, disinterested and hulking sentries. As we passed from the woods and into civilization over the golden slats of sunshine that beamed through the pine and lay across the road, the bristling mountains slowly became just purple paper cutouts pasted onto the distant skyline.