When we started Cuckoo News a couple of years ago, I had hoped to do lots of travel pieces. That was before the whole pandemic/lockdown thing, of course. Although most of the world is open(ish) for travel again, there is so much that’s still in flux, it’s not as casual a matter anymore. As we look forward to traveling more freely again, hopefully someday very soon, I got to reminiscing about one of my favorite trips, some years ago… to the great wide open, to nature’s very own carnival of colors and spectacles: Yellowstone National Park.
Let me share some of those memories with you…
Part I: Flying With Angels
America’s oldest nature preserve, Yellowstone is far enough from most non-park-related human settlements that getting there almost always involves a long drive. For me it involved a long drive preceded by six and a half hours of air travel from New York, via Denver, Colorado, to the small mountain town of Cody, Wyoming. This was a part of the trip that I didn’t expect to be as adventurous as it turned out….
First, something I should tell you about me: I’m generally not fond of small aircrafts. They give me a weird claustrophobic feeling. I once got out of a flight after it was fully boarded and after extensive wrestling with my “rational” mind, that kept insisting it was only a 45-minute flight, which, as an adult, I should muster the patience to sit through. (Also, the reason for that trip was my oath ceremony for admission to the New York Bar as a new lawyer, and if I failed to get on another flight that morning, I’d miss the ceremony and have to wait months to be officially sworn in. This was no casual matter! But I decided at that moment “I’d rather take my chances with THAT than live through 45 more minutes of THIS.”) As I scrambled out of the little toy plane, I got dirty looks from the passengers and flight crew (I should say “flight couple” – it was just one attendant and the pilot, there was no space for any more staff!) but I didn’t care. I needed elbow room. Leg room. Head room. I needed to breathe.
So you can imagine my horror when I realized, after getting from New York to Denver, that my connecting flight to Cody would be two hours in one of those little propeller planes (which, I suspect, pull double-duty as crop dusters) that are essentially little minivans in the air. There was no other option. This was the only type of craft that flew that route. So, I boarded, trying not to panic. I couldn’t stand up fully straight in that thing, and I’m only 5 foot 2 inches tall. At least in a minivan you can roll down the window and breathe. I discovered right then, one additional reason that my childhood fantasy of becoming an astronaut never came true.
I buckled in. I had no choice. I had been yearning to see Yellowstone National Park for… well practically forever. After the previous several years of my life, which I had spent in a Wall Street law firm, I considered this trip a pilgrimage for my soul. I had also spent a good amount of time – and money – booking and planning the trip. Round trip airfare from New York to Cody; car rental from Cody to Yellowstone, hotel in Cody, lodges and tours in the Park – it ain’t cheap.
Mostly, though, I really, really wanted my pilgrimage to Yellowstone.
Like most pilgrimages worth their salt, there were tribulations. As I sat like a good little sardine in this flying can, I noticed something interesting. There were angels on this flight with us. Six of them. Hells Angels, that is. And one was sitting right next to me.
(If you are unfamiliar – the Hells Angels are members of a biker gang with an intimidating presence and a history of ties to organized crime. The Department of Justice has classified them as a criminal group. But despite this sinister reputation, they seem to exist openly as a motorcycle club with chapters all over the world with a massive membership who ride together in vast numbers as planned events, and even do community service work and other charitable activities, or so I’ve read.)
So, imagine this: An itty bitty airbus with me sitting in the back row. Neither an aisle passage I could face if it got hard to breathe, nor a window from which could I look out toward the vast expanse to keep my mind off the coop that currently held my body hostage. And between me and the vision of that vastness, sat this infernal creature, black-leather clad, amply pierced and chained, most of his visible skin decorated with tattoos that symbolized things I didn’t dare guess at. He had a stone cold face and ice blue eyes that looked at me, for just a split second, as if to assess if my life was worth snuffing out. Ok… I might have been imagining that part.
Then the captain announced: before our arrival in Cody, we will need to climb to a fairly high altitude in order to clear the height of the mountain range just outside of Cody. So, there will be a sharp vertical drop as we land.
Rapid climb followed by a sharp drop. In a small plane where you already feel every breeze hitting its belly. Oh yeah, and you’re claustrophobic. If there’s a God, he was really making me earn this pilgrimage.
I tried to read, but it was no good. My stomach was churning a little. I thought closing my eyes and leaning back on my seat might be the best course of action at this point.
When the flight attendant came around with the tray of drinks, she had a hard time getting the angel’s attention. He was looking out the window. Then I did something that froze everyone within eyeshot in a moment of dread.
I touched the angel lightly on the forearm.
His head darted sharply to face me. I pointed at the flight attendant. The angel looked at her. Then me. His gaze lingered in my direction in what felt like an eternal moment and then gave a barely perceptible nod and hissed something that sounded like “thanks.”
The landing was uneventful, except that the climb and drop the captain promised somehow threw everyone – except the six angels and me – into an end-of-the-world party mood. There was laughing and screaming and many-a “oh my god I’m going to die.” I smiled at whoever caught my eye, but I didn’t really feel part of the hilarity. I realized that the average age on this flight was about fifty-five (I was in my 30s). A lot of them seemed like they may never have even seen a person of Indian origin before. I wondered if they thought I was Hispanic. Or mixed race “mulatto” as one of them might say. I felt unkind for thinking this way about them… they seemed perfectly friendly. But thoughts cross your mind. The best you can do is reject them after they arrive. I stretched my neck and tried to catch a glimpse of the mountainous sky around us. And though I didn’t share the party mood of the others, I did feel my own separate thrill. It was sort of a spiritual thrill, mixed with just a bit of dread.
The angel looked out the window.
Then, suddenly, we landed. The first, treacherous and exhilarating part of my pilgrimage was over.
A friend of mine, traveling from Washington DC, would meet me at our hotel later that afternoon. Apparently, just about everyone on my friend’s flight was a Hells Angel, making my story of the six angels pale in comparison. The concierge at the hotel told us there was a biker convention in Cody the next day. We’d be driving to Yellowstone in the morning… I wondered how early we’d have to leave in order to avoid the sea of Hells Angels descending on the freeway.
(all Photos by Koli Mitra)