East Entrance

By Jamie Balke Explorebigsky.com Columnist

Sometimes, when I let myself get wrapped up in the tedious requirements of everyday life, I take living in Montana for granted. Today I was feeling a bit nostalgic and got lost in some old pictures that reminded me of the first time I laid eyes on the West.

After I graduated from middle school in all my awkward glory, my parents planned a road trip to Yellowstone. As we packed up the station wagon and began the drive to the mountains, I had no idea that the trip would change the course of my life.

Wisconsin’s rolling hills and forests gave way to the vast lonely farms of Minnesota, and, looking out the window, my mom proclaimed she’d surely lose her mind if ever forced to live in such a place. Don’t worry, we reassured her, it was already too late.

I’ve always been particular about hotels, especially if they don’t meet my expectations on cleanliness. As I looked around the unfolding landscape, noting only the occasional outpost of civilization, I realized we were screwed. We pulled into one of the only motels in the area at nightfall, and I spent the evening crying until my brother agreed to take the rollaway bed, which was stained with urine and what appeared to be blood.

Things could only get better.

Sure enough, the next day found us stopping at Wall Drug where my brother procured a cowboy hat that smelled like cow. Our hotel near the Badlands was complete with bird-sized moths. But by then it didn’t matter: I was captivated. Topographical and ecological variations are hard to come by in my native Chicago suburbs, and those explorations of the crumbling desert hills were my first taste of real hiking. There was no going back.

We stopped at Mount Rushmore, and then buzzed on to Cody, Wyo. There, fascinated with the idea of cowboys like any proper teenage tourist would be, I asked my parents to take us to the rodeo. However, when I thought they were being mean to the bulls, I begged to leave.

Next we went rafting, and my mom asked the guide if people in the West have lots of guns. When he replied in the affirmative, indicating that people in the West have guns like many parts of a frog are waterproof, my mom desisted in her line of questioning.

The next day we entered Yellowstone by the East Entrance, and it was love at first sight. I soaked up every hike, every animal sighting, and to this day these are some of my most vivid memories. I remember the bear-shaped soap in our cabin at Canyon Village, the feeling that the trail to get to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was wild and remote, and seeing Old Faithful for the first time from the crowded boardwalk.

Most of all, I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling that we were driving in the wrong direction on the way home.

Jamie Balke moved to Bozeman in the fall of 2009. She can generally be found behind the cover of a book, meandering down a trail or desperately trying not to kill houseplants.