For those of us lucky enough to live in Southwest Montana, there’s no shortage of outdoor adventure locations awaiting exploration. That’s why, if you tell anybody who lives here you’re going to spend a day in Yellowstone in August, you’ll get at least a few raised eyebrows and a lot of responses that inevitably involve the word “really?” See, summer is Yellowstone’s most popular season, with hordes of tourists visiting non-stop from June through September. Roads are busy, boardwalks cramped, shops overrun. It’s not exactly a Bozemanite’s definition of summer fun. Most of us prefer to visit in the off-season, when we essentially have the place to ourselves. But for me, there’s a special connection to America’s first national park that is best appreciated in the summer months.
My first encounter with Yellowstone occurred 12 years ago, in late July and early August of 2007. I took a two week trip through Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and on to Seattle with my grandmother. The trip was a birthday present for me that year, and a graduation gift prior to starting high school. In retrospect, I had a shocking amount of exploratory freedom on that trip, and it’s a small miracle I didn’t end up boiled in a thermal pool or falling off a cliff into the canyon. Yellowstone had been on my mind for at least two years at that point, after a middle school trip to Denver for a science bowl competition (I was the coolest kid in middle school). At the time, I was planning to study geology when I got to college, and Yellowstone had captured my imagination with all of its surreal landscapes.
On our way to Seattle, we drove out of Yellowstone via the west entrance and up U.S. 191 through the Gallatin Canyon. About 90 miles from the park, 191 intersects with Interstate 90, which we took all the way out to Seattle. At that intersection, you’ll find a little town named Belgrade, a bedroom community about eight miles down 90 from the regional hub, Bozeman. By most measurements, Bozeman is a pretty small American city, with a population of about 60,000 in the surrounding area. I’d heard the name in a few made-for-tv Yellowstone docs (again, really cool kid), but hadn’t given it much of a thought. It hadn’t really registered on my list of places to see, and quickly faded from memory.
Fast-forward a few years to the midpoint of my time in high school. It’s that time in your life when your guidance counselor and parent begin to really push the college search process, and you start getting inundated with mail from different schools. At this point, Yellowstone and geology were still at the top of my list. Schools in Colorado and Utah were my first choices, with a career at the United States Geologic Survey and Yellowstone Volcano Observatory glimmering in the distance. It all seemed to make perfect sense, except for one small problem: my woefully inadequate abilities in math, chemistry, and biology. The first two are especially important in the field of geology and volcanology, and so my counselor, in the gentle but firm way that they do, had some conversations with me about what other fields might be of interest. Was there anything else that I was really passionate about? The only thing that really came to mind was film making and photography, both of which had filled a bit of a niche hobby role for me since starting high school. Armed with a theoretically viable academic alternative, we began to re-examine schools on my list.
One of the first things we did was to cull any schools that just didn’t make sense anymore. Colorado School of Mines in Golden? Phenomenal place, and a beautiful campus (I still have a hat I got on a campus visit. Still cool, right?). But for anyone not planning on entering the earth science disciplines, it didn’t make much sense. Around this same time, I had started receiving publications and email from some random state university in Montana (thanks, ACT!). I’d never heard of Montana State University, but the name of the town it was located in - Bozeman - vaguely rang a bell. Hadn’t we been close to there in 2007? We were ready to write them off the list too, as their claim to fame on all their publications was their status as a “top-tier research university” offering majors in the STEM fields. Again, great options, but not really what I was looking for anymore. Closer examination of the materials, however, revealed something I had missed on my first read-through; an undergraduate film and photography program, with a graduate program in science and natural history film making. Huh.
MSU inevitably ended up at the top of my list by the time senior year rolled around. It was the size I was looking for, in a college town, in the Rockies, and close to Yellowstone. It checked literally all of the boxes. I applied to eight schools that year, but really only cared about my application to one. Once I was admitted, I was lucky enough to benefit from parents who were supportive of my choice and had planned with college savings, which let me attend a school outside of New York. I was something of an odd man out among my classmates; we ran the gamut from prestigious Ivy League schools down to smaller state colleges, but almost everyone stayed west of the Mississippi. If I recall correctly, my closest classmate was roughly 1,200 miles away. Oh, and did I mention we never did a campus visit to MSU? Timing just wasn’t on our side senior year. In August of 2011, after what felt like the slowest months of my life at the time, we packed up my things and headed out to Bozeman.
While I had been to Yellowstone four years previously, my parents and brother never had been, so we flew into Jackson and did a compressed “greatest hits” version of the Grand Teton and Yellowstone tour for a few days prior to driving up to Bozeman and moving in to campus for freshman year. It was refreshing to visit the place after what had felt like a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and to share it with other people close to me who never had. Coincidentally, this trip also lined up with my birthday again. It was a stressful and emotional time, since I was the first kid to go off to college, but a good one nevertheless. Once we wrapped up the trip, we unpacked a few boxes into a cinder block-walled room on the MSU campus; the place I was going to call home for the next nine-ish months. It wasn’t until we got to this moment - this inflection point - when my parents and brother were leaving, that I really felt the gravity of my decision; I was going to school 2,000 miles from home in a community that I had never visited and where I knew nobody. I’d never been one to be homesick up until that point, but boy did I feel it during those first few weeks. And if you’re thinking that the suburban kid from Western New York stuck out in Montana like a sore thumb, yes, you’d be correct. But I wasn’t alone.
A running joke in Bozeman these days is that no one is from here. While that’s obviously not true, there are in fact plenty of people here who transplanted from somewhere else. Bozeman and Gallatin County are some of the fastest growing places in the entire country. Roughly half of the MSU freshman class is from out-of-state. It’s a community that really has become a bit of a melting pot, mixing people who’ve lived here all their lives with people who came here looking for something different from where they grew up. It’s also, quite fortunately, a community that by and large is supportive of those people who come here looking. People may grumble about traffic and construction, but the hospitality this community and state are known for is extended to everyone, whether they came from 20 minutes up the highway, or 20 hours across the country. In that sense, then, Bozeman was the perfect place for me to end up going to college. It’s a community that supported and nurtured me through those formative college years, and that I put roots down in with equal gusto. It held on tight and didn’t let go, and I returned that embrace, to the point that when graduation rolled around in 2015, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I took a job with the Admissions Office for what I thought would be a year; that was four years ago as of June, and I’m not planning to go anywhere at this point. It was what you might consider a “hard left turn” away from my academic interests in college, but has provided an incredibly rewarding career working with students, many of whom are grappling with their interests and journeys in much the same way I did.
This story then, is what maintains such a strong connection for me with America’s first national park. I don’t think there’s any doubt that I would have visited Yellowstone eventually, even if we hadn’t made it out in 2007. Visiting when I did, however, molded in a very real sense the path I would take through high school, college, and beyond. If Yellowstone hadn’t been front of mind for me, there’s a very good chance I wouldn’t have been looking at schools in the west, and that Bozeman and MSU wouldn’t have registered on my radar. The community I know and love, and the people I’ve had the privilege of connecting with here, have had an indelible effect on my life in an extraordinarily positive way. Now, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t have had similar experiences somewhere else, but I firmly believe the experiences I have had here were meant for me in a way no others could have been. And this is why, each year on or around my birthday, I make a point of spending a day or two in Yellowstone, to say thank you to the place that has, directly and indirectly, given so much to me.