“Precip-” is the prefix of the day I decide, with 37-degrees of cold and precipitation precipitating the macabre musings of deaths at Yellowstone. My concern at the moment being my goosebumps, and how mighty fine the water in those hot springs look. Turns out that they are as acidic as battery acid; and as warm and inviting as they look, and as they certainly have on these cold, so very cold, rainy days, one best not. If that doesn’t rev your danger engine, America’s first national park also happens to be the world’s largest super volcano. And home to lots of grizzlies. Thirty of whose saliva was found on the remainder of a hiker this past August, the barkeep at the empty Raven told me. Not to mention the bison goreings and tales of waterfall missteps.
Less than 3% of the park’s 3,500,000 visitors stray from the main road – a wild statistic until I realized the hours upon hours it takes to move from one park boundary to the next. The park spans 3,468 square miles. So driving about, ensconced in my four walls of sheet metal and glass and safety (auto accidents kill 31,000 Americans per year), it was so peculiar to think that why yes, what an dangerous place to be. How lovely it is.
One need not outrightly say how beautiful Yellowstone is; the cash cow of the national park system speaks loudly in collecting $750,000,000 annually for that very reason. But it was a strange experience, to feel the push to cover broad tracks in a short time span. A strangely perverse safari. To really see the park, getting a backcountry permit would be the answer – and then spend some lifetimes there. Both hikes I sought were thwarted by grizzly action (the first, a male bear had charged two groups of hikers very recently only 1/4mi. into the trailhead; the other, one was having lunch about 200m out when I arrived), but all this business of driving to and fro’ boiling springs and mud pots was stunning.
These spitting cauldrons appear in all shapes and colors, and come with names (Dr. Morey’s Porkchop, christened in 1961; a guest can imagine that nearby Puff ‘n Stuff was named around the same time). Whirligig and Pinwheel lay next to each other; Fearless and Vixen in tantalizingly poetic proximity. And the noises they made! Imagine listening to distant jet engines, and maybe blow dryer; waves crashing on rocks, a distant car traveling on wet pavement (I imagine this to be at nighttime); a rolling boil of eggs in a shallow pot; thick stew bubbling; a toddler learning to doggy paddle. From the distance the geyser basins look like clean smoking oil fields, and up close, their sulfur and fog so thick in the cold, you can see tree shadows cast by headlights in the smokescreen. The caldera landscape in the immediate vicinity is full of downed dead trees (a result of their roots being boiled to death) and fat pugs. Some selfie sticks, and jostling. Hurried people in rain jackets, tour buses idling. Old Faithful bursting, and its bursting bleacher seats. Crowded gift shops, and lots of concern about bear spray.
But out in the Lamar Valley, you’ll stop to let a bear cross the street (“why did the bear cross the road?”), or maybe spy a part of the new generation of wolves that was reintroduced 20 years ago. A favorite being the baby bison, struggling so hard to pace but ambling with such applauded effort and enthusiasm you can’t but gawk a bit – especially when there are 50 of them, and they are coming headlong for the hood of your car.