Our Real Work: Jess Ryan, MS

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When getting off the beaten path pays off (and when it doesn’t)


Our family went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks last weekend. We’re amazingly lucky that this is drivable for us. We’ve seen so much of these wild lands when we lived there. Still, a part of me always feel pressure to see it all.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) meet the national parks. Note: You can’t do it all. Yellowstone alone is 3500 square miles. We spent 12 of 36 hours in the car. And when we were on foot, there were little legs doing some of the walking. So we had to make choices.

Best choice? Just go.

(Fun fact: the National Park Service is celebrating 100 years this year. If you need an excuse to get yourself to a park, go say happy birthday.)

I love the National Parks. They focus on getting people to see and preserve the beautiful spaces around the world. They are amazing spaces and . . . a little paradoxical.

There’s a crowd management function and a surface approach to what it is like to be in wilderness. Stay on the trails, following the rules, look at this shiny, beautiful thing over here. But it’s where people have to start; falling in love with the surface enough to commit to a deeper relationship with it.

Long ago, I was a park naturalist (cute picture of idealistic me in a flat hat) and did my graduate work there. Ten years later, I experienced it completely differently. So much has happened since then: birth, deaths, moves (seven to be exact). I’ve forgotten names of plants and places. Yet this is the place that taught me how to explore, go deeper, and fall in love with all the other places I’ve lived. It taught me to get out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in a place physically, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually.

So I hope you visit and feel the awe of Old Faithful erupting.

Old Faithful at sunset. No filters. Awesome lighting due to wildfires. We drove into the park as everyone was leaving. Call us crazy.

And breathe in majesty of the mountains and find this much joy in open space:

Just back from 2.5 miles hike at Jenny Lake hike. Soaking the toes, soaking up the smiles and scenery.

I hope you feel small in the huge world around them. I hope you feel part of the bigger world, even if you stay on the boardwalk or the heavily beaten path. I hope you actually experience, and not just see through your camera lens or cell phone screen.

And I hope a few of you will step off that heavily beaten path, where wilderness seems a little more tame and controlled and the open space is full of people, to what lies beyond.

Because if you walk a few hundred yards away from the main attractions, you’ll be amazed at the solitude, wilderness, and pristine beauty. So many people get so close and never see it.

Okay, sometimes you want to stay on the beaten path. Like here:

Near the Grand Prismatic Pool at dusk. This is a place you definitely want to stay on the boardwalks and trails  . . . the boiling hot caldera underneath = death.

Sometimes you don’t have stray off the path, just look the other way

The edge of the Grand Prismatic Pool at dusk facing away from the sunset.

Or be patient for a few minutes to watch the light change:

Still at the Grand Prismatic Pool at sunset (Still no filters. Amazing what life, unfiltered can look like.)

And sometimes you need to get a little lost. Saturday night I just about lost my shit due to the incessant noise of one little person, who, to be fair, was rocking camping and hiking his little legs off. It’s been a rough few weeks, and I was frazzled. It’s why we ran got away, right?

Anyway, I meant to go to a ranger program, but took a wrong turn. 200 yards off the path, I ended up on the Snake River at sunset by myself. Hello, peace. Hello beauty. Hello, restoration.

Snake River at sunset (You can see the wildfire starting in the background that would have this entire area engulfed in smoke and close the roads and South entrance into Yellowstone two days later.)

Once you remember why you got off the beaten path, once you spend some time alone, you want to share it.

Sunday morning: Took my family off the beaten path to show them the beautiful river…and threw some rocks, played in the river, and caught bugs with no one but us and the wild beasts.

Our visit wasn’t an escape from the chaos, just from the one we had been in. We logged a lot of hours in the car, endured a certain amount of whining, faced crowds and clouds of smoke, and got out of our every day. We moved away from the surface. We became more here.

So when a little milestone happened on the way home, we were present enough to see it happening.

To more beauty, exploration, and presence in your life these days.

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