Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 18, 2005 Yellowstone at last!

Yellowstone is nothing like the Tetons. I’d figured it would be similar, aside from Old Faithful, and when I realized that we were leaving the magnificent snow-capped mountains behind I was a bit sad. But Yellowstone is insanely, outrageously weird, which in its way is just as good as the majesty of the Tetons. In Yellowstone the earth doesn’t behave the way we expect it to; it boils and bubbles and spurts forth, it melts and pours and threatens to crack underfoot and leave us to sink into the molten fires just under the surface. And the life growing on that earth has adapted to the weirdness, lush green plants nestled in steamy crevices next to boiling hot springs, glowing yellow and orange bacteria painting the ground, and animals lurking nearby in winter to capture the warmth of the natural furnace.

Old Faithful was, of course, one of our first destinations. It looks a lot like the pictures. But they really don't do justice to the weirdness of the scene. Not the geyser, they capture that quite accurately. It's the people watching the geyser. Waiting for it, more like. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands, all seated on benches, impatiently watching a bubbling steaming hole in the ground, waiting for the thing to shoot in the air. Complaining when it doesn't perform on schedule. And chatting with each other, meeting the other people waiting for the geyser. Most of them were Americans, but there were others, too. Aging Indian couples who had come for the summer to visit their graduate student sons and daughters and travel around the US. A busload of Japanese tourists, the ladies in high heels and long coats, all carrying bag lunches packed for them by their tour operator. A group of French matrons, taking advantage of the low dollar perhaps. But mostly hundreds of American families, white, with blonde children, in t-shirts from all over the country - a gymnastics club in Indiana, a restaurant in San Diego, an environmental group in Boston, a bar in the Florida Keys, the NYPD, a motorcycle rally in South Dakota, professional baseball teams everywhere. It's a cross-section of Americans who take road trips in the summer - a phenomenon I never experienced, coming from a car-free New York City family, but my sister's children have.

There's far more to Yellowstone than Old Faithful, though. We particularly liked the paint pots, which look like vats of boiling white paint, belching and burping as bubbles of air rise through the thick liquid. After we saw them, we’d let out deep calls of “blub, blub, blub” and both of us would laugh. I was delighted by the brilliant blue of some of the hot pools, which became richer and even more vibrant as the water depeened. It's all interspersed with purple and yellow flowers - how do they manage to grow there? And it was wild to drive along the roads and spot great clouds of steam billowing out of some otherwise ordinary spot in the earth. Walking the boardwalk across Firehole Lake, we felt as if we had suddenly slipped into a sulfurous steam bath – and been just as quickly dried off by the sharp cool breeze from behind us. Signs everywhere warned not to step onto the formations, as they could crack under our weight and drop us into the fires below. But we saw buffalo prints in some of them, so they must have been reasonably solid. On the other hand, we heard a story about a buffalo calf that fell into one of the pools and was rapidly cooked; apparently the area smelled like stew for days afterwards. Not nice, but funny nevertheless. Blub, blub, is it soup yet?

Herds of buffalo wandered wherever they liked, including right past the traffic and in the middle of the roads. Their light-brown young meandered with them – babies that might have weighed “only” 60 or 80 pounds, to judge by their size. I love buffalo. They are such enormous shaggy creatures, with massive heads and thick black beards and giant nostrils and sleepy eyes. These herds were still

losing their winter coats, and they looked a terrible tatty mess, huge clumps of thick fur falling off and dragging as they ambled around. Signs everywhere warned us that they could sprint up to thirty miles an hour, and were unpredictable and dangerous. A delightful drawing on one of the posters showed a very startled boy flung in the air by a buffalo, his camera flying one way and his hat another as he soared in front of the animal. We kept our distance, but it was hard to imagine these lethargic beasts, who steadily tore up the grass in front of us with their big teeth, actually perking up enough to charge after anything. I could – and did – stare at them for a long time. I don’t think I’d ever really get used to them. I wish I could have seen this part of the world when they were still the dominant creatures, when herds of thousands thundered across the plains like a huge oncoming storm. But even in their reduced numbers, they are quite amazing.

The birds were great too. On one hike we were surprised by a great gray owl, blinking at us silently from his serene perch on a branch not far from the trail. He was the same color as the bark, but his shape didn’t fit at all. He was a great lump of a thing, and branches just aren’t great lumps. Several elderly couples hiking near us didn’t have binoculars, and it was wonderful to share mine with them and share their awe at the owl. Later we shared a mountain bluebird with a Germany couple who hardly spoke English, but were delighted with the bird once we explained in sign language where to see it. And at a stop by the side of the road, a man with a spotting scope shared his excellent view of a mamma grizzly and her two cubs, which we could barely see with my binoculars. Showing other people the wonderful creatures is half the fun of seeing them, I think.

Some of the landscape was conventionally beautiful, not weird. We hiked along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, as it is called. It doesn't hold a candle to the one in Arizona, but it is grand nevertheless. The water rushing along the bottom drops in a series of high waterfalls, whose tops can be reached by going down a steep path into the canyon. It was worth the climb back up to see the permanent rainbow that arched across the bottom of the canyon when sunlight filtered down between the cliff walls. Further up the canyon, we watched from above as osprey circled around their nest, and we spotted a group of big horn sheep on the far side of the canyon. Near Mammoth Hot Springs, in the north of the park, we hiked through lush woods filled with soft green ferns, delicate flowers, and flowing streams, and across open hillsides covered with sagebrush and grasses. But the hot springs themselves were among the weirdest things in the park, great rushes of boiling water pouring over weird white chemical deposits, among dead trees that had the misfortune to get in the way of overpowering geology.

Then there are the dead trees. Yellowstone burned in the summer of 1988, one third of the park succumbing to the fires. It will be a long time before the remains of that devastation are gone from view. Whole hillsides look like giants were playing with pixie sticks, hundreds of bare trunks tossed across the ground waiting to be deftly picked off by huge fingers. Elsewhere the trees are growing back, looking like plantation forests evenly spread with young pine trees, all the same height. In some places there are just charred remains, in others the dead trees are still standing, mixed with those that survived the blaze. In a way it's dismal to see what the fires did, but they brought life to the park as well. Where the fires didn't hit are thick stands of dense pine trees. Where they did hit, there's a great mix of things growing, providing homes to a richer mix of animals, and changing the character of the park. Thinking about the new life in the park made even the ugly piles of dead trees seem interesting. I'd like to keep watching over the next thirty years, to see what happens as they decay and new things grow in their place. Fire is natural, after all - only humans could do something serious enough to really hurt Yellowstone.

Continue to the next entry. Return home.

Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.