Summer of 1993
Chapter 1--A tourist in a new world
I drove my parents' new Plymouth Voyager to the gates
of the East Entrance. All of us--my mom, nearly sixteen-year-old
sister Gloria, and my twelve-year-old brother Alex--were glad finally to
be in Yellowstone after a long drive that had begun early that morning
just west of Rapid City, South Dakota. I approached the gate excited
with the entrance fee in hand.
At the gate, the ranger gave us various literature
about the park. My mom asked how far it was to Lake, where we had
reservations. All of us were a bit downcast to find out that it was
about another twenty miles away through an area of maximum speeds of 45
miles per hour. That may have been my only moment ever lamenting
that Yellowstone was too big. The land is so magical that I have
ever since only wished it to be much larger.
The land as one drives west from the East Entrance
is dominated by the heavily forested Absaroka Range. As we drove
through on June 9, it was a bit harrowing for my mother. Imagine
driving on a narrow mountain road. On this road, you drive near the
edge of some steep cliffs, sometimes with no guard rail there to protect
you from catastrophe. It is also a land still covered in snow.
Although our drive through these mountains was not nearly as treacherous
as our drive over the Bighorns earlier the same day, the shock of those
same mountains had not left my mother. She could not help clutching
to the car with all her might. As for me, the land already had won
me over. I felt euphoric that I had the opportunity to work in this
high elevation mountain paradise; and if I never saw the spot I was in
again, I felt lucky that I could see it once. Though tired, every
curve brought some call upon my fellow passengers to ooh and aah, "Wow!
Look at that!" and "Unbelievable!" and "Look at all the snow--in June!"
When we came out of the Absarokas, there was
Yellowstone Lake. To see Yellowstone Lake is awesome enough, but
to think about it as one sees it is absolutely mind boggling. This
immense high altitude lake hits you as you drive along its northern boundary
as unbelievably large. Though we were used to the ocean-like endlessness
of Lake Erie, Yellowstone Lake's enormity was not lost on me. It
is a very large lake confined only by vast lodgepole pine forests and mountain
ranges at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. It was like nothing we
had ever seen. The sunshine on the lake made the water sparkle wondrously.
You cannot begin to understand its aesthetics until you see, and see again,
and see again hundreds of times this precious jewel nearly one and one-half
miles over my head which writes at this moment at sea level. Seeing
it then, I did not understand. I did not know that I had driven through
a range called the Absarokas nor that the trees that I were seeing were
lodgepole pines nor that Yellowstone Lake would witness some of the most
important events which colored the life that is mine today. Nevertheless,
it left me in awe, an awe that only grew with time.
My mother read the literature as we drew nearer
to Lake and the rest we so dearly wanted. The most memorable pamphlet
was one with a drawing of a man flying through the air after being gored
in the butt by an American bison. My education of Yellowstone began
by learning that bison were extremely dangerous, that they could run up
to 30 mph, and that they sometimes attack humans. Nevertheless, I
could not help stopping the Voyager when we saw our first bison just outside
of Fishing Bridge.
Ignorance cannot be the only explanation of what
causes people to stop their cars dangerously in the middle of the road
the first time one sees these giant monsters, remnants of America's past.
The bison is a most impressive animal. It is not simply a giant cow
in appearance. With its dark brown hair, odd-shaped face with huge,
sad eyes, and its matted mane the bison announces itself instantly as unique.
To see something unique in the wild so close to the road, the first instinct
I had and many others have had was the need to record the experience, to
capture its essence for the future--the future that would desperately try
to relive a fond object of the past. We knew that the first bison
was just such a moment.
Had I to do it again, I would not have stopped,
however. Knowledge changes the values one holds and how one freely
chooses what present moments should be revered by future moments.
Though the lack of knowledge does not explain why one stops precariously
close to a bison, it goes a long way. Ignorance and curiosity and
the desire to remember have been replaced by knowledge, love, and the desire
to respect. I still have that desire to remember--I could not write
without that desire--however, I want to remember a moment of respect rather
than the cheap thrill of getting a better bison shot than Joe down the
street. Again, though, better pictures are good things, but a better
picture taken in a moment of selfish disrespect is worth little to me anymore.
Very shortly after seeing my first bison, we
drove into Lake Village. We soon approached the parking lot of the
Lake Hotel, a large yellow structure that does not necessarily impress
anyone from the parking lot view. I must admit that my primary interest,
as I looked for a place to park, was to find as many different out-of-state
license plates that we had not collected already on the trip. I parked,
and we got out of the car in order to check in to our cabin.
Inside the Lake Hotel, the world is more impressive
than outside and behind. The place had an air of elegance.
The porters were dressed nicely, all with name badges showing the states
they were from. There were several places to eat. The hotel
looked quite modern. I was soon surprised to find out that the hotel
was about one hundred years old. Recent renovations gave it a very
comfortable look. The front lobby faced Yellowstone Lake. The
chairs there offered the guests and other tourists pleasant seats with
which they could sit and have a relaxing view of the beautiful lake.
Waiters attended to anyone sitting down in the lobby. Connected to
the lobby was an attractive restaurant and a souvenir shop.
Being poor, we knew that we had to be of another
economic class to stay in the likes of the Lake Hotel, but there was no
loss in that. At least we were staying in very close proximity of
it. We received the keys to our home for the next two nights.
It was a small cabin right off the parking lot. The lot was littered
with more bison, and people seemed to move around them as if it was the
norm. Thirty minutes ago, I had not seen a bison. Now, they
seemed commonplace. I must say, though, that I would never get anywhere
near as close to those bison (at least by my own design) as I did that
day. Really, there was no way to avoid them. They lay near
everything. Frankly, I cannot comprehend my fearlessness. Now,
the thought that maybe a bison might be around me makes me think twice
about going near an area they might be. I digress. Let us not
get too far ahead in our story.
For the rest of the afternoon, we were in the
Lake Hotel. Mom called Dad. Then, we ate submarine sandwiches
at the Deli in the hotel. I recall that I enjoyed it very much.
After eating, we went to the souvenir shop. I looked at the t-shirts
and was surprised to find that none of them said "Yellowstone." Many
of them said "Wyoming." I thought to myself, "I think their t-shirt
sales would be a lot better if they said 'Yellowstone' on them."
Later, I found out that Hamilton Stores had a monopoly on most products
saying "Yellowstone" and "Old Faithful" while TW Services (the concessionaire,
who unbeknownst to me at the time, ran the Lake Hotel) seemed to have the
unenviable monopoly on "Wyoming" products. After looking at souvenirs,
we sat for a few moments relaxing in the lounge facing the lake.
Tired, we went to bed very early. We had
begun the day just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota, very early in the
morning. I went to bed exhausted, yet excited, and also nervous wondering
what my summer had in store. That was still two days away, and I
was happy to have a day to see the park before facing the mysteriousness
of what life would be like working in a new land, ministering with people
I did not know to people I did not know. How would I get by as a
scared and shy boy in a completely unfamiliar world? I thought about
all these things. I wondered if I'd meet my future wife in Yellowstone.
Mostly, though, I was glad to have a day with my family where none of that
We arose early to a sunny sky. After eating
a breakfast that was probably no more than generic pop tarts and granola
bars, we walked to the Lake Post Office to mail some postcards my mom had
bought. The plan was to take a tour bus because Mom was tired of
driving. Besides, she wanted to learn about the magnificent land
we were in. I remember my mom's excitement at everything we saw.
The trip made a strong impression on her. I do not really remember
Gloria's and Alex's reaction. I suppose they seemed generally positive
toward the experience. All I remember is that we fought very little
on the trip. That was quite the blessing on this trip because we
fought all the time at home. Alex and I genuinely did not like each
other. This trip was quite pleasant, however. That morning
and throughout, it was fueled by my mother's enthusiasm.
Bison, once more, lay in the parking area.
There were approximately a half dozen. They seemed to be a very natural
part of the landscape. No, they were not running freely on the grasslands
of the Great Plains. No, it did not seem odd that Bison and the technological
monster of modern humanity should mingle in a national park. It seemed
to me quite wonderful that technological humanity and bison could co-exist.
How great it was evaded me, however, and how fragile it was had only in
the faintest way been stamped on me.
My mom made reservations for a tour of the southern
loop. The roads in Yellowstone form something like a figure eight.
The park is so large that the tour buses operated by TW in Yellowstone
can only take tourists around half of the park in a day. A day was
all that we had. Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in all the
world, lay on the southern loop, and so that was the obvious choice for
one day in Yellowstone.
It was true that I had two and one-half months
to spend in Yellowstone, but I took the attitude that this would be my
only day of touring, potentially, all summer. I knew that Grant Village
was twenty miles from anywhere; and having no car, it would be foolish
of me to expect more. Besides, I was there primarily for ministry.
The attitude, and it was most sincere, served me well that day and every
day after during my first summer in Yellowstone. Everything I saw
was a blessing, and every extra moment was savored like I would never have
that opportunity again. While lowering expectations may lower ambition,
I know the sincere humbleness of that summer did me nothing but good.
We waited for the tour bus in the lounge of the
Lake Hotel. The morning had been crisp, though not too bad.
I expected cool mornings considering the elevation. In many things
regarding Yellowstone, I was not so much completely ignorant as I was ignorant
of the extremes of the Park. On the doors of the lounge, a great
many obnoxious bugs hovered. They were neither houseflies nor mosquitoes.
It turned out that they were called buffalo flies. Ironically, I
have rarely noticed that insect since that morning.
After about an hour of waiting, an old dingy-looking
tour bus arrived. It was loud, but it was about what one would expect
for a day tour. The bus driver, a brown-haired, bearded man in his
mid-thirties named Dan introduced himself personally to everyone on the
bus. His voice had a strong hint of Appalachia, and he mentioned
(not to the surprise of anyone in my family) when finding out that we were
from Ohio that he was originally from Kentucky.
Dan made a strong impression on my mother, and
she still remembers much of what he said that day. He was both amusing,
informative, and autobiographical. He made a permanent residence
working for TW at Old Faithful, working as a tour bus driver by summer
and a worker at the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful by winter. He had
lived permanently in Yellowstone for the past seven years and related that
he skied to work in the winter. Old Faithful, according to Dan, receives
an average of 240 inches of snow a winter. "Wow!" I thought
wondering what the people in Cleveland's snow belt would think about that.
Dan was also prone to exaggerate and tell traditional myth rather than
historical fact. An example of that included his remark that Shoshone
Lake was the largest lake without road access in the world. More
examples will appear in my tale of that day.
We left Lake and headed south along Yellowstone
Lake toward West Thumb, a mere three mile drive from Grant Village.
The road along the lake is generally covered with tall, skinny pine trees
that Dan informed us were called lodgepole pines. We did not stop
until reaching West Thumb Geyser Basin, a small geyser basin on Yellowstone
Dan gave us some instructions. We were
to stay on the boardwalk because the crust of the earth was very thin and
dangerous in geyser regions. We were not to, under any conditions,
approach any animals. He explained that approaching the animals was
not only foolishly dangerous, it was not good for the animals to lose their
natural fear of humans. Of course, we were not to litter. Finally,
we had to be back at the bus in twenty minutes.
Most of us stayed near Dan during our walk through
this area. He mentioned that it was very unlikely that any geysers
would erupt here but that it was possible. He informed us that the
water was boiling hot, though quite near a Yellowstone Lake which had just
two weeks before melted from the winter freeze. When approaching
an extremely clear blue pool that appeared to be misnamed "Black Pool,"
he gave us evidence of the volatility of the region noting that a few years
back this perfectly blue pool used to be black. A thermal shift had
changed the color of the pool dramatically. In twenty minutes, Dan
had given us a brief but fascinating glimpse into a geyser basin I had
never heard about in school or anywhere else.
My feelings at West Thumb were no less than giddy.
As we quickly strolled past one unique sulphur-odored hot pool after another,
I knew that my home in Yellowstone would be very near this little geyser
basin on the shores of this bay of Yellowstone Lake. The recognition
of my luck had not escaped me. Even though West Thumb nearly never
makes the top list of wonders in Yellowstone, I thought then and often
how such a spot would be the pride of entire states, including my native
Ohio, and turned into a tourist resort. Gladly, West Thumb, amongst
the gargantuan wonders of the park, seems relatively boring.
One thing at West thumb disturbed me and other
tour bus compatriots at West Thumb. Many of the hot pools had been
littered with coins. Tourists, thinking that these natural fountains
were much like fountains in a shopping mall, often threw coins in the ponds,
often damaging, sometimes destroying the plumbing of the thermal features.
The stupidity and the selfishness angered me. I still have no understanding
as to how people could be so remarkably ignorant in thinking that their
coins would have no effect on the features. I also have no understanding
at how aesthetically deficient some people are. Can a coin in a spectacular
feature add a single bit of beauty to the pools at West Thumb and throughout
Yellowstone? I later learned in my research of Yellowstone history
that tourists used to throw soap in geysers attempting to ignite premature
eruptions. In any event, I did not even have to be as steeped into
Yellowstone as I am now to express instant disgust at the behavior of tourists.
Disgust toward Yellowstone tourists, in general, only grows, unfortunately.
Leaving West Thumb, we rode toward Old Faithful.
The road, I later learned, was called Craig Pass. Craig Pass is a
mountainous, forested road, which crosses the Continental Divide twice.
This is what most struck me, at first. I had never crossed the Continental
Divide, and it seemed like an accomplishment. I suppose I liked crossing
it because I did not know that it went through Yellowstone. If I
had only thought about it a little or looked at a map, I would have figured
it out. Yet, it was a nice surprise all the same.
The lodgepole pine forests were thick as they
had been throughout. We had not really noticed any evidence of the
famous fires of 1988. As it happened, our initial route through the
park had just missed evidence of the fires. I do not remember if
I looked out over Thumb Bay at West Thumb where I surely would have seen
burnt forest, but we had not really been in a burnt forest. This
ride was no exception. Dan said that this was an L5 forest, meaning
that it was the oldest and most mature stage of a lodgepole pine forest.
Between the lodgepoles grew small Douglas Firs. The forest looked
thick and endless and quite alpine. These trees were thin, fairly
tall, but not enormous nor diverse. Yellowstone forests are most
remarkable not in what beauty they behold in themselves but that there
are such thick forests at all in an otherwise barren region.
Our bus stopped at Shoshone Point for a quick
look. Shoshone Point looks down over the lodgepoles out three miles
through the valley of DeLacy Creek to the northeastern portion of Shoshone
Lake. Beyond Shoshone Lake, about forty miles away, the Teton Range
stood faintly. Although the sight probably is not as aesthetic as
a simple view from my old apartment in Seattle of the Cascades, the Tetons
had one thing the Cascades did not. They had a look of natural isolation.
No roads went to Shoshone Lake, the second largest lake in Yellowstone.
No roads connected my view to those distant mountains. This thought
was not lost on me. The tour guide made the outrageous claim (which
I have not researched to disprove) that Shoshone Lake was the largest lake
in the world without road access. Nevertheless, this land was isolated.
Although it was not entirely invisible to a bus of ignorant sightseers,
it was invisible enough.
We moved on to the second crossing of the Divide
to a peculiar little spot. It was not so remarkable as memorable,
probably because of our bus driver's fictional anecdote about it.
To this day, my mother asks me whether I visited this place as if it was
one of the most interesting places in all of Yellowstone.
We stopped at Isa Lake, a very tiny body of water
resting on the Continental Divide at over 8,200 feet above sea level.
Much of the year, the body of water, about the size of a small pool of
flooded rainwater in a baseball field, is covered in waterlilies.
That day, it was quite clear and calm, surrounded by snow on the banks.
Isa Lake's claim to fame is the oddity of its drainage. The eastern
half of the lake flows west to the Pacific Ocean while the western half
flows east to the Atlantic. This occurs because the Continental Divide
does not run straight north to south but zigzags throughout. The
fact of Isa Lake makes people think twice, at least those people who bother
to stop and read the signs posted by the National Park Service.
Isa Lake would have slipped into personal obscurity,
however, without having been told a myth about it from our driver.
With his Appalachian charm, he told the following story:
Back in the fur trapping days, two trappers happened
on this body of water. They weren't quite sure what to
make of it. Each had his own idea of what it was.
One exclaimed, "It's er lake!"
The other retorted, "It's er pond!"
This went on for awhile when all of the sudden the lake
rose up and said in a deep voice, "I's a lake!!"
The name Isa Lake stood ever since.
Dan quickly recanted his myth by noting that the lake was named for
a woman named Isabel. In fact, it was named for Isabel Jelke.
However, the legend seemed quite apt for the body of water and our moods
We rode toward Old Faithful. A few miles
from the region evidence of the geyser basin took the form of steam rising
here and there through the valley. While we sought for evidence of
an erupting geyser, we received instructions for our tour of Old Faithful.
We had approximately ninety minutes to eat, view an eruption of Old Faithful,
walk through the area near Old Faithful called Geyser Hill, and see the
Old Faithful Inn. Dan told us that although he could not describe
its beauty, we would understand it as soon as we walked through its doors.
Such intriguing words left me ready to see this inn.
Besides being ready to see the most famous geyser
in the world and whatever other beauty lay in waiting and the fact that
I was hungry, one other thing crept. I was afraid of tomorrow.
At Lake, we had started with a rider who was not on the ride primarily
for the sake of touring. She rode with us to get to Old Faithful
where she was slated to work for the summer. At Old Faithful, she
was dropped off to work. A twinge of fear shook me for just a moment
as I tried to block out the reality of tomorrow with the fantasy of today.
Ironically, the present was a dream in the face of the next day.
How many of us lose sight of where we are to dream of tomorrow? Quite
to the contrary is Yellowstone. For me, Yellowstone quickly became
the land where tomorrow was a dirty word.
The bus approached the giant log inn. By
the crowds moving toward it, the driver correctly surmised that we had
just missed an eruption of the geyser. Dan pointed out Geyser Hill
and commanded that we keep our eyes open for an erupting geyser.
He dropped us off at this beautiful log structure. Before I take
you in and describe my memory of this place, it would be wrong of me not
to paint a picture of what the first moments in the upper geyser basin
looked like. Too often, Old Faithful is but a photograph of a geyser
eruption without relationship to its environment. Perhaps, that is
because there is a loneliness to Old Faithful as it stands at the edge
of the basin off to itself with its cone coming out from its spout ever
so gradually and gently so as to not be near any other geyser. Nevertheless,
our eyes see more.
When I first went to Washington, D.C. the summer
before, we walked by the White House. On the news, this building
seems to hold an isolation it does not have. You do not see the busy
streets around the house, you do not see the many buildings built near
the house. Furthermore, you never see that the building is hardly
as impressive a structure as it appears on television. The Capitol
is a truly impressive building, but the television leads us to believe
that one building may as well be another. Pictures of Yellowstone
also have that way of lying.
The upper geyser basin upon which Old Faithful
sits is a land where the trees break open to allow something truly remarkable.
There is not just one geyser, nor just one great geyser and a lot of smaller
ones, nor is Old Faithful really the center of the eye's attention.
Sure, when I first drove into Old Faithful and it seemed that we might
just catch an eruption, my eyes looked nowhere else but the high columns
of steam, but it soon turned toward this other world that no picture had
ever been shown to me in school. I had thought that Old Faithful
was surrounded by trees and by itself. Besides the enormous human
tourist world created around it, the land near Old Faithful is truly odd.
Rarely does one find a collection of fountains and cones, bizarre shapes,
wildlife, and a beautiful river running through it anywhere on the earth.
Nowhere could imitate the upper geyser basin. As I looked at Geyser
Hill from the bus, it was a blur, a land yet unseen. When Dan had
told us that there were geysers more impressive in height than Old Faithful,
I wondered what buried treasures lay in this land. To this day, whenever
I go to Old Faithful, I always go with some other motive than to see the
world's most famous geyser. Yet, somehow, I always find myself watching
yet another eruption of the poor geyser whose only fault was a fame for
which it never asked.
We now stood in front of the Old Faithful Inn.
It's giant red wooden doors already spoke of something different, but I
wanted to know what was inside. We stepped in, and we understood.
Should I describe more? Should I tell you what you will not understand?
Or, should I leave these things to myself? It was wooden, the logs
were unmistakable, there was a large fireplace, restaurants, shops, and
lots of people. You can view some of my pictures of it from the outside
and find some pictures of it from the inside, and still you will not understand.
The American transcendentalists were fond of saying that the whole was
not the sum of its parts. Such is the Old Faithful Inn. And,
although it is a human creation, its beauty was no less astounding to me.
As I write now, I certainly have a bias in favor of anything that is Yellowstone,
but I hope you will believe me when I tell you that there was no such bias
in the summer of 1993. I was then and am still now a very critical
person with no need to like something unless I find in it something not
only that gives me a good feeling but that I think is somehow in alignment
with the rational order of things. I truly could not imagine someone
being able to duplicate such a structure, if for only it would be impossible
to assemble the same unique wood chosen for the chore. Entering the
Old Faithful Inn was like entering a giant log cabin but with infinitely
We ate at the inn in a fast food place at the
inn. It was not the best food I ever had. I think I had something
called a geyser chicken sandwich. We ate it, and then went out to
Old Faithful to await the eruption.
At the geyser itself was constructed many viewing
seats, and it was something of a circus. We did our best to get a
good view for a picture. After some time, the geyser begins to eject
water. Cameras go off. They mistake the ejection of water with
the beginning of the geyser eruption. Old Faithful teases you for
awhile with this sort of action. It is almost as if it was saying,
"Even though you know that I am going to go off, and I will go off,
I'm still going off on my own terms." We waited at our spot of the
boardwalk as more people crowd around the geyser. On this day, I
did not see people step off the boardwalk, which is a rare refreshing memory
of tourist behavior in the geyser regions. Indeed, Dan had warned
us that the boardwalks were there for good reason, and that the crust of
the earth gives out under the feet of some disobeying tourist every year,
sometimes scalding them to death. In the old days, people had their
pictures taken right next to Old Faithful. It was a really silly
practice...and just as soon as you get lost in thought, there she goes!
Old Faithful erupts in all her majesty rising in increments, with a very
classical air about it. It rose that day to about 140 feet and lasted
for approximately three minutes. Its eruption is short, not as high
as we imagined, but it nevertheless is classical. I have no trouble
believing that if the Greeks had known about Old Faithful that they would
have thought it would fit in quite well with their ideas of beauty and
form. We took our pictures, and left to see what we could of the
other thermal features.
We had about half an hour to see everything else.
Half an hour! There was no time, and I was very scared of missing
the bus. My mom and Gloria were quite fascinated by the thermal features
and spent quite awhile gazing at each one. I did not fully appreciate
what I was seeing because I knew that we had to get moving. There
was a moment, however, where I did take some time. We were on the
back side of Old Faithful. To one side was Old Faithful, to the other
was the Firehole River and two elks feeding on the stream. These
were the first two elks that I had ever seen in my life. We took
a picture and moved on. The Firehole River was very pretty there
with no signs of the thermal region upon it. Not more than a few
hundred feet downstream, thermal pools spill over its sides into the river
creating an awesome display of color on its banks. There were also
thermal features in the river itself. How many rivers in your hometown
have banks of white striped with orange, brown, and red streams?
After a bit, I took my brother Alex and began
nearly running for the bus. The maze of boardwalks seemed endless,
and we had but a few minutes. Alex and I barely reached the bus on
time, and we had to tell Dan that my mom and Gloria were on their way.
It was a little embarrassing. It was also a good thing I had made
it ontime because he might have left us. My mother and sister made
it in about five minutes later, and we were soon on our way north from
the Old Faithful region.
At Old Faithful, we had seen our first burnt
forest. Dan began explaining about the fires of 1988 and his experience
with them. Fires had scorched forests all around Old Faithful, and
he told us that it was a miracle that the fire unexplainably jumped the
Old Faithful Inn without burning it to the ground. He remembered
being led out to Old Faithful itself being that a geyser out in the open
was the safest place to be. The fire changed the Yellowstone people
had grown up with into the Yellowstone I know and recognize. Fires
burnt about one-third of the parks forests, but new forests had already
shown signs of growing in their place. Throughout the park, we could
see little lodgepole pines, not much bigger than blades of grass, growing
throughout stands of burnt forest. Dan explained the ecological importance
of fire to the life cycle of the park and that it was unfortunate that
most people only saw fire as a bad thing. Furthermore, he noted that
the national press had exaggerated the situation greatly. They set
up their cameras near the worst of the burnt forests and announced, "This
is all that is left of Yellowstone National Park." Nothing could
be further from the truth, and the burnt forests weaved in and out with
unburnt forests creating a diversity of landscape that was most interesting,
We drove north toward the Middle Geyser Basin,
and we made a stop there. Unlike the many thousands of people at
Old Faithful, this area was much more quiet. It seemed that we were
out in "nature." In fact, we saw our second geyser eruption of the
day. We had no luck that day at Old Faithful as it was unusually
quiet with thermal activity. This geyser shot up only about eight
feet high but in a straight jet. Unlike Old Faithful's short eruption,
this one went on and on and on, and was still going when we left.
It was one of those pleasant little experiences that color one person's
experience from another's. All experiences like that are Yellowstone,
but each is its own story, its own little geyser eruption, if you will.
As we drove north, we made another small stop
at a thermal region, then moved toward Madison junction. Our route
was guided by the Firehole River; and like at Old Faithful, it was not
uncommon to see thermal features spill into it creating a display of color
and oddity like no other river I had ever seen. Yellowstone Lake
had just melted, but Dan told us that the Firehole River never froze even
when it was forty degrees below zero.
He told us of Christmas in Yellowstone, a day
when all park employees celebrate Christmas every August 25. He said
that it was started long ago by guests at the Old Faithful Inn who had
been snowed in on August 25. They decided to celebrate Christmas,
and the tradition has stuck. One should say that the traditional
myth stuck, as it turns out that Christmas most likely was started by the
concessionaires. Dan did not tell us this, but he likely believed
the myth himself. Anyhow, for his part, Dan and the other drivers
traditionally leave a case of beer on a small island in the Firehole River
for one of the rangers, and every Christmas that ranger collects his or
her gift. I certainly looked forward to August 25.
How did the national park idea arise? Dan
told us the traditional tale of that happening. In 1870, the Washburn
Expedition was exploring the park. They had almost completed their
journey when they found themselves camping in front of a mountain and having
a discussion of what they thought should be done with this region.
Some favored dividing the land between them. Others favored all
sorts of other commercial enterprises. Finally, Cornelius Hedges
spoke and said that he favored none of those plans. Instead, he favored
setting aside the region as a national park for the benefit and enjoyment
of the people. Being moved by that, they set out to make Yellowstone
the world's first national park and accomplished it two short years later.
The mountain by which we passed was the one where Hedges had made his speech
and was named National Park Mountain in honor of that night. I would
not remember all the details of this tale if I had not spent a great deal
of time researching this very subject. Dan's story is Yellowstone
myth, as it turns out. I had great trouble believing it even then.
Hedges may indeed have made such a suggestion on that night in front of
that mountain, but the history of Yellowstone becoming a National Park
is far more complicated. I invite you to read my paper on the matter.
It was this very telling of the oral tradition by Dan that aroused my curiosity
in Yellowstone's early history.
We drove past Madison Junction and continued
north toward the Norris Geyser Basin. The only stop we made was along
the Gibbon River at Gibbon Falls. I scarcely could tell that we had
stopped following the Firehole and were now following the Gibbon.
Unlike the early explorers before me, I had great trouble reading the land.
Even they were known to make some notorious mistakes, but I should not
hold their mistakes as anything close to my inabilities. I even fancied
myself as good at geography; however, there is a great difference in being
able to read and understand a map than to be able to read and understand
a land. I suppose that difference is only one of scale, but it is
a difference all the same. Anyhow, Gibbon Falls drops about seventy
feet. It was nice; but like West Thumb, its beauty tends to be dwarfed
by everything else in Yellowstone. If it were in my backyard, I would
probably spend a great deal of time and curiosity at the falls. I
love falls. However, I do not remember that these falls have ever
inspired much more than an "Oh, that's nice" from me.
The bus noisily moved its way along until it
reached the Norris Geyser Basin. We barely had time to stop which
is most unfortunate. My mom did not even get out of the bus.
I had time only to go to the top of the basin and look down upon it for
a quick picture. It was too bad. What I saw was something I
would describe as hellishly beautiful. Now, I know that writers have
mourned the fact that so many of Yellowstone's attributes have been given
names which attest less to their grace and beauty than to their resemblance
of our ideas of hell, but I did not know about such things at the time.
My honest first reaction to Norris was to call it "hellishly beautiful."
With its odor, its peculiar surface, its bubbling pits, screaming fumaroles,
and weird assortment of colors, I wondered how such a region was earthly.
Yet, what separated this land from that of Venus was that trees were growing
right in the midst of it. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The other geyser regions did not quite evoke the same hellish thoughts
to me in quite the way that Norris did. I had only a few brief seconds,
but that was all I needed. We drove onto Canyon.
We made no stops on the stretch of road between
Norris and Canyon, a stretch that I think may be the most dull in all the
park. When I take tours of the park, I try to avoid this stretch
because I do not find anything worth seeing. The reader and lover
of Yellowstone will have to forgive my attitude toward it. For, I
know it is not there to please me. I know how intrinsically beautiful
it is. I know all of that. However, it bores me all the same.
At times like this, I am glad that I am a rationalist. If I had to
depend upon my feelings toward a place, I would be betrayed even in Yellowstone.
Not all things are pleasing to the senses, and not all things move one
to feelings of ecstasy. However, I have a mind. I know that
this stretch too is good and for many reasons. For that reason, it
is as dear to me as anything else in the park. Too often, though,
we ransom our minds for the sake of passion. Even the magic of Yellowstone
cannot forbid that. Before I foreshadow an entire tale, let us move
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River is
something that many people know about before they come to Yellowstone,
but I was not one of those many people. Indeed, the canyon area may
have been the most inspiring and aesthetic region to those who had a large
part in making Yellowstone a national park. Langford writes inspiringly
of it in his journal. The United States Senate, soon after creating
Yellowstone National Park, bought Thomas Moran's canvas of the canyon.
I never knew Canyon. The only thought I had about Canyon as I looked
at my map of Yellowstone was, "I love canyons. I bet whatever is
there is cool." Not only was it "cool," it was the most beautiful
thing I ever beheld and have ever beheld. Others disagree with me
for sure, but I still believe that I have never seen a more beautiful thing.
I have been to Spain and many national parks in this country, but I have
never seen anything so grand and subtle as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
It is as beautiful to me now as it surprised me then.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is caused
by the river of that name. The Yellowstone River begins outside of the
park south of it from Yount Peak. It flows north into Yellowstone
Lake and comes out again at Fishing Bridge where it flows into Hayden Valley.
After crossing the valley, it makes two dramatic drops creating the twenty
mile Grand Canyon. The first drop is called the Upper Falls, a 109
foot drop. The second one is the Lower Falls, a most beautiful 308
foot drop spilling into the Grand Canyon proper. The historian Chittenden
thought the Upper Falls to be the more beautiful, but my heart is with
the larger. It spills grandly into the vast canyon with great force.
The most distinctive feature of it is an evergreen stripe of water along
its left edge which gives it an unusual appearance. I was once told
that it was also called Evergreen Falls, but I have never been able to
confirm that proposition. The Canyon itself is unbelievable.
Its depth is about 1,200 feet at its greatest. The Grand Canyon in
Arizona is much deeper, but depth is not everything. At the bottom
of the Canyon, the Yellowstone River is very narrow and winds its way through
a wall that is a geologist's dream, and a painter's heaven. The wall
expresses colors of yellow, white, red, orange, brown, and all mixtures
inbetween. Along its steep walls grow lodgepole pines. This
to me was quite remarkable, to see trees growing on such a surface.
There was evidence of thermal activity in the region. We also saw
an Osprey nest on the far side of the canyon opposite Grand View Point.
Its sheer size and grandeur still surprises me every time I visit it.
Each different natural light sets it subject with new colors to be adored.
Like the Old Faithful Inn, it is impossible to understand. Unlike
the Old Faithful Inn, there is a great joy, however, in describing.
This paragraph writes like a shout for joy. There is little frustration
in conveying the remembrance of something so magnificent. I had seen
Niagara and that was the magnificence of sheer force and volume, but this
was sheer beauty.
We toured this paradise under cloudcover.
Although my photos of the day show more evidence of clouds, the reality
was that the Canyon failed to lose its brilliance of color even then.
The photograph is supposed to be the greatest imitation of reality, but
it truly is a liar when it comes to Yellowstone.
We toured both sides of the Canyon, both falls,
took many pictures, then headed to Lake, or home as it was becoming to
seem. We crossed Hayden Valley. In Hayden Valley, Dan told
us to expect to see a herd of Bison (or Bee-SONE, as he pronounced it in
a rather obnoxious fake French accent). He had told us that we were
sure to see a bison herd that day. We had not, and we saw only a
few bison in Hayden Valley. Dan had said that such an occurrence
was rare, but we had seen about a dozen bison nevertheless. We stopped
at one point for a moment so that some of the tourists could take a picture
of one of the bison. At that stopped moment, a common event of tourist
infamy occurred. We were warned not to approach the bison.
We were explained the speed and power of the bison. At this stop,
the driver specifically told us not to cross the street. In fact,
his words were so impressed upon me that I did not even leave my bus seat.
However, one of our group disobeyed, crossed the street, took his picture,
than had the stupidity to turn his back on the bison. We all started
yelling at him to get back. His wife was screaming at him.
He took no notice as he took his time crossing the street. The bison
looked angry, but was kind enough not to pursue the matter this day.
It seems to me that the most galling of tourists always turn their back
to the bison after they get their shot. It disgusted me that day,
and it angers me now as I think about it.
Dan had one more joke for us. On the hillsides
on the western side of Hayden Valley was some snow. He told us that
this was called "Indian snow." He asked us if we knew why.
No one offered an answer. He hit us with the punchline below the
belt, "It's called Indian snow because there is Apache here and "a-patchy"
there... ." It was a joke to groan at, although I find myself telling
the same bad joke whenever I see Apache snow.
We had no time to stop at the Mud Volcanoes.
We were due back at the Lake Hotel at 5 pm. It would not be the last
time I had little time to see these curious features. Dan's only
comment about them is that they wreak of sulphur and our just some more
thermal features. He is quite wrong in saying that they were just
some more thermal features because they are quite interesting. Anyhow,
we were all tired, and many of us were glad to be done for the day.
It had begun to rain.
He took us to the Lake Hotel, we had our dinner,
went back to the cabin, and went to bed. It had been a splendid day
that I will never forget.
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