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Close your eyes and just think about the word “Serengeti” – what do you come up with? Images of savannah. The sound of lions and wind in the grass. Sun. Never ending sky. Idyllic, primal Africa.

The Maasai named the area of vast grasslands between Tanzania and Kenya “serengit”, or “endless plains” in the Maa language. For generations they hunted, herded, and lived on this land that is now home to a never-ending flow of tan and green Land Cruisers. For generations foreigners have been coming here to find something that is distinctly human – the romance of being at the mercy of nature and a sense of smallness. Of insignificance.

Here no one is the king. Death can lurk in any corner. In any minute.

As I watch the sun set over the plains, I feel the eyes staring back me from the grass. I can hear the life happening in the trees around me and miles away. We sit down to dinner and allow the china and crystal to distract us from what is going on all around us in these endless plains. It is not just dinnertime for us.

All Serengeti camps light fires in the evening. This creates a certain sense of security, but as I zip up my tent in the dark, knowing that nothing lies between me and wilderness but a canvas sheet, I can’t help but feel a little more alive than I did when I left my hotel this morning. I can’t help but feel small.

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I am usually a proponent of sunsets, enjoying the last lingering light on the horizon that fades away into a blanket of stars and the promise of dinner conversations and new beginnings to come after the night. Sunrises don’t have the same effect for me, however in Kodaikanal (standing on the balcony at the Greenlands Youth Hostel), I have found the exception.

On a day with few clouds

For the last 200 years, the Yosemite Valley has been the inspiration point for such famous Americans as John Muir and Ansel Adams. Today it is a rock climbing mecca, drawing people from all over the world into its valley for weeks and months at a time.

I only had two days to spend in Yosemite. Maybe it was the overwhelming beauty and ruggedness, the feeling that everyone in this park was way more hard core than I am, or maybe it was just the beautiful sunshine and 70 degree afternoon, whatever the case, my inspiration was to just spend the afternoon laying on the sand beach by the river and drinking a lemonade. I’ll save the infamous Mt. Hood climb for next time!

My inspiration point - right below El Capitain

I was pretty underwhelmed with my Yellowstone experience at the beginning. Driving in from the south, we went by the magnificent Tetons and then, as soon as we passed through the Yellowstone gates, were thrown into a Disneyland-like, pine tree-lined traffic extravaganza. All the way to Old Faithful, all I could see were pine trees and (you guessed it) RV’s. Starving and not willing to deal with the lines in the touristy new service center by Old Faithful, the hubby and I sat on a bench overlooking the main parking lot and ate our beef sticks, apples, and cheddar cheese, all while be heckled by a huge black crow. (Did you know that crows can cluck, and whistle, and gurgle, all in addition to making their normal crow-like sounds?)

Leaving our new friend crow behind, we ventured over to wander around Old Faithful and the other geysers in that part of the park. It was 1:30 and we had an ETA for Old Faithful of 2:24pm (+ or – 10 minutes), so we walked over to the Old Faithful Inn (beautiful log lodge built in 1904), purchased one of the airiest ice creams ever (vanilla only, because this late in the season everyone is just waiting for the food to run out so they can go home), and took a seat with a few hundred of our closest friends. 2:24pm came and, like someone turned on a switch, water started spewing 20 feet into the air. I’ll admit it was more of an awe-inspiring experience than I anticipated.

Luckily Old Faithful was the beginning of the good stuff. Bison filled  meadows, Artist’s Way on the canyon, and a little jaunt to the top of Mt. Washburn were all around the corner. Mt. Washburn was my favorite. After a two hour hike mostly above the tree line, we arrived at a fire lookout on top of the mountain. We could see all of the park, the Tetons, and the fires burning off to the east of the lake. Looking out over such a large and varied landscape was the first time that it really hit me why this piece of land had been the first national park.

In 24 hours I went from underwhelmed to enchanted. I think I’ll be back.