Montana and Yellowstone: When the Consolation Prize is Better.

“Do you know why I wanted to come to Montana?”

“Nope. Why?”

“I read about it in a novel and it sounded amazing.”

“That is the EXACT reason I went to Maine last year!”

I was thrilled that Ali and I are equally inspired by literature in our desire to see the world.

Fernweh, Chris calls it. The German word (pronounced “feeyen-veh”) that means “far-sickness”, or a desperate desire to go places one has never gone before. I have it. Badly. I can yearn to be in a place I’ve never been significantly more than I yearn to go back to a place I know and love. The Faroe Islands, for instance. Look it up. If those images can’t give you Fernweh, then you definitely don’t have the same disease as me.

Ali…might have it. But she likes being home as well. But when I asked the kids a few months ago “Where in the United States would you like to fly to?”, she immediately yelled out “Montana!!”

(The same instance as Noah yelled out “Hot Tub!!”, which made things very easy to decide.)

The reason for that question was because we had a trip booked and planned for March of 2020 to Washington DC. It was literally the week of the world shutting down and everybody going on lockdown everywhere. We got flight credits for the cancelled trip, and those flight credits had to be used by December of this year. I couldn’t let those expire, so I narrowed down the times we could travel, decided August was our best month, and asked the kids where to go.

Luckily for Ali, Montana has always sounded great to me as well. I mean, if she had said Iowa (no offense, corn,) I might not have so readily made her dreams come true. But I, too, have been interested in experiencing the Big Skies of Montana for a long time.

Our friend Kelly had also had a flight credit because she was going to be traveling to DC with us last year, so we invited her along for the rain check trip. And so it was planned: the kids, Kelly and I would go Monday to Monday,

and Chris would join us on Thursday and stay until we all left on Monday.

I was not in the mood for a road trip, even though that’s basically what you’re supposed to do when you go out west, but I’m always willing to buck tradition, so we decided to go to Big Sky, Montana – a ski resort town – and limit our travel to only Yellowstone, which was an hour south. Other than that, we would explore the area in which we stayed.

I found us an affordable VRBO rental (that ended up being the best, most thoughtfully-stocked VRBO rental ever) a mile from a gorgeous waterfall trail (Ousel Falls) in a neighborhood that supposedly had its own neighborhood moose. I mean, what could be more perfect – I went to Maine and searched high and low for a moose but failed – if I could just spot the neighborhood moose in Montana, my life would be complete.

The kids hadn’t flown since Noah was 2 and Ali was 6. Now they are 10 and 14, and I was instantly amazed at how very much easier double digits makes things.  They loved flying, they were amazed at every detail, they could carry their own luggage, and they could sit with my bag while I got an airport Chick-fil-a biscuit at 5am.…but dang, Noah was cute last time he flew.We flew into Bozeman, an hour north of our destination of Big Sky. I had tried to find us a place to eat lunch, but oddly almost everything was closed. We ended up at a gas-station-attached diner in a state where gas stations sell cow hides in their front yard.

The diner was delicious, and we got our second taste of Montana culture when we noticed a motorcycle gang pulling out of the parking lot – with horns on their head.

We headed south to Big Sky, which was an incredible winding road through the mountains that gave us our first taste of the glorious gorgeousness of Montana. And as soon as we got to our rental, Noah made his trip dreams come true.

We spent the afternoon realizing that we had somehow managed to land in the most scenic, beautiful place on earth – all within walking distance of our rental house.

It didn’t take us long to realize that Montana was a WAY better use of airline tickets than Washington DC – sorry, politicians.

The neighborhood we stayed in was the Meadows of Big Sky. At 6,000 feet altitude, it was a lovely winding 15 minute drive up to Big Sky Resort, where the real mountains were.

Big Sky Resort is a world class ski resort that has inexpensive (relative to skiing) summer entertainment, such as zip lining,

zip swings,

and riding the ski lift up the mountain and hiking back down, which afforded incredibly bizarre weather changes – from 60 degrees and sunny to hailing and sleeting on us (still sunny) to sleeting and raining on us in howling wind (lost the sun for a minute there) back to 60 and sunny. I now understand how people can find themselves in truly perilous situations on mountain hikes.

But hiking with this sort of backdrop is totally worth the risk, even with our somewhat breathless state from the altitude.

In our immediate neighborhood was an incredibly lovely hike to Ousel Falls, with towering spruce trees and deep river gorges.

One of Ali’s favorite moments of the entire trip was climbing the walls of Ousel Falls. She loves being as close to becoming one with nature as possible. Her climbing also helped illustrate the size of the falls.


But we all loved that hike – even though Noah is making some mysterious gang symbol in this photo.

Although there were so many to choose from, and we took full advantage of all of our neighborhood’s plentiful trails, we only tried out one other official hike nearby – Lava Lake, a 2.5 mile out and back trail up a mountain to a mountaintop lake – a hike that ran by a loudly gurgling, gorgeously clear mountain stream for most of the journey up.

The climb was gradual enough that it was enjoyable for (almost) all of us.

But regardless of out-of-breath ten-year-olds, even they can appreciate the grandeur of a lake at the top of a mountain, with other mountains reflecting into it.


Ali, continuing in her efforts to be as one with nature as possible, kept trying to find all the highest spots to climb and perch upon.

And anytime we found ourselves at our rental house in Big Sky, she was somewhere up the dirt road in her well-hidden reading spot, lying in the tall reeds, being visited by a family of 4 deer, and alarming other passerby who were not expecting a mostly-hidden girl lying in the grass with a book.

Photo of teenager in reeds unavailable due to her never revealing the exact location of her secret reading spot.

So that was our foray into the Big Sky area. Other than that, we spent two entire days in Yellowstone National Park, which was just incredible. It was a one hour drive from our house, but the drive was so gorgeous that it felt like part of the tour.

Nearly as soon as we entered Yellowstone on the first day, we came upon stopped traffic – which is always good news in Yellowstone. I didn’t have my camera handy or anything, and yet there was a bison, hurtling toward us, running angrily along the side of the road.

That’s when I realized that park is my dream. And I need to be better prepared for dreams.

I grabbed Ali’s camera and tried to take a picture, but to no avail. Before I realized the lens cap was still on, the angry bison was upon us.

Thankfully, Noah was better prepared, and from the back seat, he shot an iPad video of our first bison as he ran by our car.

Serves me right for all those years I made fun of iPad photography.

Toward the end of the day, though, God had mercy on me and sent another bison slowly ambling right by our car, happy to have his picture taken. Or maybe it was the same bison and he had finally run out of angry energy after a day of entertaining tourists.


Between our two days, we ended up seeing over a dozen lonely bison,

and this herd on a hillside.


We kept a list of all of our animal sightings – a fox, a couple of bald eagles, deer, and several elk (including this incredible scene).

We did not, however, see any moose in Yellowstone, nor did we spot any bears, though at one point traffic was stopped for 20 minutes and when we finally got up to the spot, I hopped out to see what it was, but only saw a tree being violently eaten from below. It felt like a scene from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we can only hope that it was an invisible moose or bear.

But although the scenery was absolutely stunning, and often more than I could take in,

The thermal features were so much more intense and plentiful than I had ever imagined. In my mind, Yellowstone was a lovely park with animals and mountains and Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Springs. I did not realize that the whole park was a supervolcano working out its anger issues through bubbles and burbles and steams and spews and terrible smells so that it didn’t erupt and destroy half our country.

Noah knew that, though. Because that kid loves his natural wonders. And he was kind enough to get me up to speed as I gasped and ogled at the incredibly alien landscape of the park.


We somehow had miraculously perfect geyser timing (there’s no cell service in the park, so good luck trying to plan your timing after entering), and showed up at Old Faithful three minutes before eruption,

And then happened to be facing the Beehive Geyser for its once-a-dayish eruption, which is taller and more angry than Old Faithful. We were really impressed with our perfect lack of planning.

Grand Prismatic Springs was by far my favorite thermal feature, and we visited it from above our first day,

and from below the second day. Above is definitely the way to see it, though we still enjoyed the boardwalk that walked right by it.

Noah became the most diva of all divas at the Mud Volcanos, which was a rather impressive array of various boiling, steaming, and burbling pits of mud, water, and nothingness that smelled like the worst most potent eggish toots ever created.

He could talk of nothing else for hours – how very much Mud Volcano was his least favorite portion of the park. But in his defense, there was vomit on the sidewalk, so someone in Yellowstone that day was a bigger diva than him.

The West Thumb Geyser basin was one of our favorites. It had a collection of dozens of bright blue, bright green, white, and orange thermal pools, all right up against Yellowstone Lake.

The differing colors are caused by the varying temperatures of the pool, thereby allowing different microorganisms to live in each pool (or in the same pool but in layers, like above), and each microorganism colored the water differently.

Some were boiling or steaming right next to the cool lake. Such incredible physics going on here.


My favorite overheard quote of the entire trip happened at this pool, after having walked the boardwalks and seen all of the above and many, many gorgeous thermal activities…
Two men were standing behind me, and one spoke to the other in an incredibly superior and professorial, yet monotone voice…

“As a microbiologist, I find it hard to get excited about any of this.”

Dude. If you can’t get excited about the coolest example on the continent of your field of study, then you’ve studied too much.

We all agreed that Yellowstone was dreamy.

I would have been happy to stay a week and just stalk and photograph animals. And Noah would have liked to have read every sign and visited every thermal pool (with the exception of mud volcano).

The rays as we were leaving the park were just an added bonus.

During our very last night in Big Sky, we were driving through our neighborhood when Noah yelled “WHOA!! What is THAT!?”

It was….

The Neighborhood Moose. AND HER BABY.


She was being a total cliche neighborhood moose and eating one of the neighbor’s trees in front of their kid’s bikes and Chevy Suburban.

At that moment, My Montana Experience was complete.

I’d found my Moose. I’d seen her incredibly massive nostrils. And I could go back to Birmingham in complete happiness.

This trip was so enjoyable – watching Noah geek out about natural wonders and Ali work to become one with nature, and listening to the two of them giggle hysterically at inside jokes and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. We have four years left of having two kids at home, and we are strategically looking to maximize that time.  We’ve come up with a bit of a four-year master plan to see more of the natural wonders of America together, and do it guilt-free by making it a part of our homeschool curriculum.

Stay tuned, and we will share our journeys here.