This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary and as the National Park Foundation said, “the Centennial is more than a birthday. We want people everywhere to embrace the opportunities to explore, learn, be inspired or simply have fun in their 407 national parks….” UNP asked its authors to write about their favorite National Park to contribute to the #FindYourPark campaign on social media.
The following contribution is from Kevin Grange, author of Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World (Nebraska, 2011).
The sun had almost set over Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin when a tourist suddenly dashed past us on the wooden boardwalk.
“Hurry!” he offered breathlessly to us. “Beehive Geyser is about to erupt!”
Beehive Geyser’s name originated from the shape of its four-foot-tall cone which members of the original expedition into Yellowstone thought looked like an old-fashioned straw beehive. Eruptions of Beehive Geyser are rare and wonderful: they typically last five minutes and expel water and steam nearly 200-feet into the sky with such force, the eruption can be heard a quarter-mile away.
Despite being exhausted after a long day of sightseeing, my friend Dena, her four-year old son Lars, and I immediately started sprinting towards Beehive and, as we did, I thought of a tiny Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas.
I first traveled to Bhutan, a tiny country wedged between India and Tibet, in 2004. Along with being the world’s most mountainous country, Bhutan has the distinctions of not having a single traffic light, governing by a policy of “Gross National Happiness,” and having the toughest trek in the world.
After my trip in 2004, I returned again in 2007 to attempt Bhutan’s epic Snowman Trek. At 216 miles, with eleven high mountain passes, (including seven over 16,000 feet), the Snowman Trek is a twenty-four day boxing match for the hiking boots. More climbers have scaled Mt. Everest than have finished the Snowman Trek. Historically, less than 120 people attempt the trek each year and, of those, less than half finish.
Just some of the challenges of the Snowman includes the duration, notoriously bad weather, the high mileage, high camps and high elevation, all of which means there is a high likelihood something will go wrong.
However, a lifetime of traveling has taught me that it’s precisely these types of crucible situations that can reveal new aspects of your character and lead to new discoveries.
Having had the good fortune of traveling to Bhutan four times over the years, I’ve noticed a number of changes in myself since my first trip. I once struggled with greeting someone in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language, and yet, saying kuzuzangpo-la now seems as effortless as English. I also now intuitively walk clockwise around stupas (Buddhist monuments), praise the gods like a local by shouting “Lha Gyalo” from the high mountain passes, and have the good, gastrointestinal sense to request Bhutan’s mild chilies with my meals.
However, perhaps the most striking change has been in the pictures I now take when I visit the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”
When I first visited in 2004 to do the eight-day Chomolhari Trek, I returned with hundreds of photos of old-growth forests, glacial-fed rivers and majestic, snow-capped peaks. They were beautiful pictures but, when I returned to the USA and showed them to friends and family, something was missing. Perhaps it was this feeling I had, of not fully grasping the country—of capturing its scenery but not its soul—that prompted me to return to Bhutan in 2007 to do the Snowman Trek.
Over the course of that three-week trip, as I slogged over 216 thigh-crying miles, I again snapped photos of the natural scenery. But I also started taking pictures of my Bhutanese guides, horsemen, monks and villagers. While the photo album from that trip felt better in my heart, it still made little sense in my head. What was the difference?
Fortunately, my answer came in the months that followed. As I wrote a memoir about the Snowman Trek, I noticed all the key scenes and memorable moments crystallized around the people I’d met—getting lost in the swirling fog near a monastery only to meet two yak herder brothers who accompanied me back to the trail; joining the ladies in the village of Laya for a cultural dance; watching the Bhutanese school children sing the national anthem in Lunana, a remote district that is a ten-day walk from the nearest road and sealed off from the rest of the world by snow for four months out of the year. While the Bhutanese architecture and scenery were awe-inspiring, I realized those are but a backdrop for the true beauty of Bhutan—or any country for that matter—its people.
Consequently, when I returned to Bhutan to guide the Snowman Trek in 2008 and 2010, my camera had a distinctly people-driven purpose. Certainly, I continued to take photos of rivers, mountains and monasteries but, this time, I included people in those images to give them scale, add a smile and soul.
After spending over three months trekking in Bhutan, I have seen examples of kindness that could soften even the most hardened heart—nomadic yak herders welcoming us into their tents on snowy afternoons to warm us with butter tea; monks inviting us into their temples to share a prayer and villagers lending us a horse so we could transport a sick trekker. While they may call themselves the “Dragon People” the truth is, when you travel in Bhutan, you will feel their kindness and are treated like royalty.
As Dena, Lars and I approached Beehive that evening, the ancient thermal feature suddenly woke up, gurgling and splashing, before suddenly shooting water and steam into the sky with a soaring veil-like plume.
“Was Beehive worth the sprint?” I asked Dena, with a friendly nudge.
“You bet!” she replied.
One glance at the geyser had swept away all the sore muscle memories of our busy day.
When Dena volunteered to take a picture of me, I eagerly handed her my camera, grabbed Lars’ hand and we hurried up the boardwalk to stand in the cool rainbow mist from the geyser.
“Hey Lars,” I hollered over the jet roar of the water and raising my arms triumphantly. “Isn’t life cooler when you’re standing in geyser spray?”
“Wheee!” he hollered raising his arms too.
Nearby, Dena stood smiling and snapping pictures.
When I’m in the US, my friends often ask why I repeatedly return to Bhutan and, most importantly, what keeps me motivated trekking all those miles over the high, snowy passes. The same is true in Bhutan, where the Bhutanese routinely ask me what is it about our National Parks that makes them so special. My answer in both cases is the same—I show them the friends, family and amazing scenery in my photo album.
Kevin Grange is author of Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World and Lights & Sirens: The Education of a Paramedic. He currently works as a Firefighter Paramedic with Jackson Hole Fire/EMS. For more information, please visit: www.kevingrange.com