Chapter 30 - Yellowstone National Park
The roads in Yellowstone are horrendous. The Park Service was beginning to make improvements in 1997, but when I rode through, the roads were the same ones that had been built 50+ years ago: narrow, steep two-laners, shoulderless and full of potholes. I limited my by-bike sight-seeing to one day.
On July 13, I stayed at Grant Village campground for one night. Next day, I got up at six a.m., hoping to ride to the West Thumb geyser basin before other tourists began flooding the park with their automobile traffic. But Yellowstone is notorious for its erratic weather, and today there was a cold snap; frost covered the inside of my tent fly. I didn’t leave till after seven, and even then, I was bundled into all of my clothes.
It was a glorious morning, though, and not only did the steam of my breath hang in the air as I rode, so did the steam from various mud pots and steam vents by the roadside. It was surreal to ride around a bend and see a simmering, churning little pot of mud not ten feet from my bike.
The West Thumb basin was deserted and enshrouded completely in mist and sulfurous steam when I rode in at 7:30. I wandered around in amazement, passing in and out of clouds of steam as I examined each “exhibit” in nature’s art show. CLA-CLUNK went the cleats of my shoes on the boardwalk; besides that, there were no sounds but the birds.
When I was nine, my family spent several weeks in Yellowstone, and one of my favorite spots was Morning Glory Pool, near Old Faithful. The shape of the pool does resemble a morning glory flower—wide around the edges, narrowing gradually into a graceful flute shape with a narrow “tube” that goes thousands of feet down into the ground. But when I arrived at the Pool today, my seventeen-year-old self noticed things that my nine-year-old self had not
In each geothermal pool, different bacteria grow depending upon the water temperature. In the cooler water, brownish-reds predominate, and there is a range of other colors that grow in middle-temperature water. In the really hot water, however, grows a blue that is pure, bright turquoise. Few pools are both hot and still enough for the blue bacteria to grow, and Morning Glory is currently one of those rare places.
Today, though, as I stood on the boardwalk, I could see the marks humans have made on the beautiful pool. At the end of each year, a display plaque said, park officials use a specially designed vacuum to pull out all the debris that people throw down. Each year, they pull out more than three hundred pounds of junk: sneakers, sticks and stones, coins, shirts, toys, etc. etc. All the garbage is literally clogging up the delicate plumbing of the pool. The water is getting cooler, and the blue bacteria are dying. If people continue to throw things into it, the pool will irrevocably change color to muddy brown like most of the others.
I got to Madison campground on Monday, July 14, and decided not to venture back onto Yellowstone's crazy roads until I left the park. The rest of my exploration of Yellowstone would have to be local and on foot.
A cyclist from Utah, who looked about 35, shared the hiker/biker campsite with me that night. He was riding a mountain bike with knobby tires, chain-smoked cigarettes, and wore jeans instead of bike shorts. He slept in a $30 K-Mart tent, and wondered why it leaked when it rained.
“I’m havin’ the time of my life, though!” he told me, puffing on his cigarette. “I jis’ took six months off from work, and I’m gonna ride around on me bike for the rest of the summer. I hain’t took a vacation the whole time I been workin’ at my job, and I figured now’s the time. This is the life—all I gotta worry about is where I’m gonna sleep, and hell, that ain’t been a problem! I’m seein’ this country all right, seein’ it like I never done before.” He took a long drag on the cigarette, then looked at me. “Now missy, you're lookin' at me funny, like I'm crazy to be smokin’.”
“Well, kind of,” I said, “I do think smoking is pretty silly, especially when you're riding a bike!”
“...but don’t you say nothin’ 'bout it, hear? It’s what I likes to do, and if it shortens me life some, well then that’s okay—I’d rather enjoy life while it’s happenin’ since we’ll all die someday for some reason—that’s my philosophy. Ever smoked?” No, I said, I hadn’t. “Well, then you’re jus’ missin’ out. I know it’s a bad habit and everythin’, but hell, it’s worth it!” He extinguished his butt with a vigorous stomp of his sneakered foot.
“Okay,” I said, “I won’t talk about it as long as you stay downwind of me.”
“Agreed,” he said. We talked as we made our respective dinners, and he sat downwind. A half-hour later, he started off for the spigot to fill up his pot.
"You need any water?"
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Well actually, no, thanks... Or, maybe, could you just fill up these two bottles? Thanks!”
He took the bottles. “Aw gee…can’t make up your mind. Ain't that just like a woman!”
“Well gosh," I said stiffly, "I’m sorry! I was just trying to think of whether I needed any. Next time I’ll get it myself.”
“It was only a joke Missy! My goodness don’t get huffy. I’m just gonna go get the water.”
Another character was camped in the hiker/biker site when I came back from the ranger program on Monday night. It was quite dark in the shadows, but moonlight streamed through the trees and I saw a person sitting on one of the bear-boxes near my tent.
“Hello,” I said.
“Oh!” The person jumped, and I saw a man in his early twenties, with dark curly hair. I couldn’t make out his face. “Oh, hi. Are you the other person camping here? I met the guy in there—” he motioned towards the K-Mart tent, “who's pretty crazy. Did you meet him? I’m Troy.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, “I’m Sarabeth. Are you riding the TransAm?”
“Well, yes and no. I started out in Virginia and wanted to do it the whole way, but I completely miscalculated the money part. I’m in college right now, in Rochester. And I’m, like, totally broke. I planned to spend like $10.00 a day, but I figured out quick that that wouldn’t work and I was gonna be out of money way before Oregon. Also, I hated the south—all those horrible dogs—and so I hitchhiked through Kentucky. And after I got on my bike again, the Ozarks nearly killed me. After that, I thought, Why do I even want to keep going? Kansas bored the hell out of me, and I said ‘Fuck it.’ I hitchhiked to like the middle of Colorado, and now it’s just gorgeous. I wanna keep goin’, but I’m gonna run out of money like any day now.”
We were both seated on the bear-boxes now. Troy seemed to want to talk, and I kept quiet. “I’m meeting my dad in West Yellowstone tomorrow to do some sight-seeing,” he continued, “and I’m hopin' that he’ll, like, help me out. I really wanna finish this trip now, more than anything. I need to do it to focus myself. I mean, here I’m in college, it’s my third year, and I’ve got, like, no idea what I want to do with my life! I thought I knew, but I really don’t—an' I feel so weird 'cause everyone else does! And then just before I left, my girlfriend broke up with me. I have no idea why—she didn’t even tell me. She just said one day, ‘We’re over; you know why,’ and left! I mean, get that! The girl dumps me and won’t even give me a clue about what’s wrong. It’s just unfair. I don’t understand women at all. This is, like, the second time it’s happened, too, and it’s making me mad. It’s not like I’m worse than all the other guys out there, you know? Why me? So anyway, I can't go home now—I'd have no money, no girlfriend, no idea about what I’m doing with my life...”
Troy talked for forty-five minutes.
*Sometimes it’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen*, I thought to myself as I crawled into my sleeping bag. The pine trees swayed gently in the breeze overhead, and then I was asleep.
During my leisurely stay in Yellowstone, it seemed like most of the visitors were trying to “Do Yellowstone” in as short a time as possible. Three-quarters of the people I saw looked hurried and harried and stressed, while they rushed to see Something Else. They ran to sit in rows on the boardwalk around Old Faithful, ran to the nearby McDonalds for lunch, raced around to see another geyser basin and Do some wildlife, headed back to their RV for some television before bed, performed the same rushed schedule the next day, and then they left.
Many of them looked so unhappy and desperate. It was as if these were their two days or a week to take a break from the daily grind, and they wanted this vacation to Fix It All. They wanted to relax, be pampered, see neat things, and magically feel better.
I counteracted the hasty activity around me by not doing much. At 5:30 on Wednesday morning I left my tent and walked slowly down to the meandering Madison River. At not-yet-dawn it was very chilly, but I was headed for the warm spring that was nestled in a curve of the river. There are only three geothermal features in the park in which you are allowed to soak. Most of the other springs are way too hot, and there's also a rule that you cannot go into a pool or spring unless it’s within a certain distance of a fresh water source and contains a certain percentage of that water. The tiny warm spring on the banks of Madison River fulfilled those requirements.
No one stirred in the campground, and I followed the river down to the small pool. I stripped off my clothes as quickly as I could, and jumped into the bubbling water. It steamed gently around me as the sun began to rise, lighting up the clouds in the east. Then the light made its way over National Park Mountain, and all of a sudden yellow-gold rays radiated across the sky. It was as if this were the first sunrise ever, as if I had never seen the mountain before. *Why should I go anywhere else*, I wondered, *when it's so beautiful right here?* National Park Mountain seemed like the prettiest one I’d seen in Yellowstone. But then again, it was the first one I'd really taken the time to see. I left the pool after the sun had risen and changed the ethereal dawn into a regular sunny day.
I spent the rest of the morning in the ranger station, looking at books and talking with Eileen, a new ranger. I asked her what it was like to work for the park service. Eileen looked about 25, with long brown hair and smiling eyes. While she told me about her job she rested her elbows on the counter and laughed a lot.
“…Well, on the one hand,” she said, “you've gotta deal with tourists who ask you things like, ‘Are there any real bathrooms here?’ Lots of visitors don’t like the pit toilets, and so they come in here to complain to me. It’s also hard when people come in and say, ‘I have two hours in the Park—what should I do?’ 'Really, you shouldn’t even bother,' I want to tell them, because it’s impossible to do much at all in two hours. ‘Just stay and watch the mountain!’ I want to say. People don’t realize this is a National Park that's nearly the size of the state of Connecticut.”
As if to illustrate Eileen’s point, a woman came rushing into the ranger station just then. “Hi,” she said. “I’m gonna be in the park for the rest of today, and I wanna know your opinion: should we only Do Mammoth and Canyon, or can we also Do the Norris Geyser Basin? I’m gonna be leaving in the evening from the opposite end of the park.” She stood at the counter after delivering her questions, both comical and sad as she fiddled impatiently with her leather pocket book.
Eileen looked at her. “Well, I’d say you might want to just focus on one place if you only have the afternoon. It takes a long time to drive from Mammoth to Canyon...”
“Yes, yes,” said the woman, “but I want to know about Norris. I was thinking we might have time to squeeze that in, because we’ve heard it’s beautiful.” She drummed her fingers on the counter.
“Yeah, of course it's beautiful! But it’s *all* beautiful. It really depends on how much time you want to spend at each place and–”
“Okay,” the woman decided. “I think we’ll do it. Norris can fit right in after Canyon. Thanks!” She was already out the door.
“So you see,” said Eileen. “That’s the hard part… But gosh, I still can’t believe I get to work here and get to live in this amazingly beautiful place. There are only a few months when it’s overrun with tourists like her, and generally you get to meet the neatest people. Spring and fall are just lovely.”
As Eileen’s shift was ending, she asked, “I was wondering—do you like to go hiking?” She hung her canvas hat on its hook.
“Well, tomorrow I’m going for a hike with some of the other rangers who have the day off, and I’m sure they'd love it if you came. Would you want to?”
“Oh yes!” I said. “Definitely. I don’t have any prior engagements...”
"Sorry we're late," Eileen said breathlessly, when she came by at 8:40 the next day. "It's been a disorganized morning. Okay: everybody, this is Sarabeth. Sarabeth, this is Pete—" she pointed to large man in the front seat.
"Hey, I've already met you!" I said. "Didn't you do that campfire program on Aquatic Life the other night?"
"Okay, so you two know each other. Now, this is Sally in the middle in the front—she's a ranger at Old Faithful. All the rest of us work here at Madison. " Sally smiled at me, a small woman with curly black hair. "Oh, wait: Natalie here doesn't work at Madison either—she's a ranger at Norris. And this is Jon—he's on law enforcement and is at Madison."
"Hi," Jon said.
"Okay, so now you know everybody. Except For Jon, we're all rangers, but Pete and Sally are like 'senior' rangers and Natalie and I are still a step above interns. Your level depends on how long you've been here.”
“Senior rangers get to wear cool hats,” said Natalie.
“And senior rangers like Sally can work in the winter,” Eileen added.
"Hey Eileen, you forgot one introduction!" said Sally, as I settled into the back seat.
"I did? Who? Oh, that's right! This—" she patted the dashboard of the car "—is my car, The Rocket. It actually isn't one at all, but we drive it a lot and we figured it would run better if it had a spiffy name."
"It actually doesn't, though," said Sally. "We just pretend it's fast and reliable."
"Although of course," Jon remarked, "you would never go above the posted park speed limit of forty miles-per-hour, anyway."
"Of course not…" Natalie was laughing. "At least, not with Jon in the car."
"What kinds of problems do you deal with—as a police officer, I mean?” I asked Jon as The Rocket chugged, un-rocket-like, toward West Yellowstone.
"To be honest, it's completely boring stuff. Mostly I give speeding tickets. In training, they taught us to tell how fast a car's moving just by looking at it. Like, that red van coming at us is doing between thirty-seven and forty. That green station wagon is going a little faster… But anyway, I'm off duty!"
"On our days off, we try to take the day off," Eileen said. "It's not easy, since we work *and* live here—and we don't have much time for grocery shopping and cleaning and stuff during the week. I mean, we all love working in Yellowstone, but gosh—I can't even remember the last time I've been out of this park! There isn't much to do once you get past West, unless you drive for hours and hours—and by that time your day off is over and all you've done is drive. So we watch videos, or sometimes go to the movie theatre in West that shows movies that are years old."
Now we were driving through some severely burned areas of the park, where the fire of 1988 hit hard. For years, everyone had thought that fire was totally bad—and every blaze had been suppressed. But the ecosystem had gotten unbalanced that way, and by the spring of '88, there was so much accumulated dry matter that the only thing wanting was a stray cigarette butt or a random lightning strike. By midsummer, small fires had united to form huge raging blazes and nearly 1/3 of the park was burned to some degree. Now, nine years later, the cycle was coming back into balance—with so much sunlight, the flowers and ground-level plants could grow lush where once there were dense woods; and of course, there were millions of baby trees that would soon grow into a new forest.
"People didn't—and still don't—understand the fire," said Natalie.
“ 'Looks like a bomb came through,' ” mimicked Sally. “That’s, like, a standard comment from visitors," she explained to me. "All the rangers get it when they work in the burnt areas. Yesterday I was in the visitor center, and man oh man—so many people kept asking about the fire! Folks get really upset, even though it happened ten years ago. And then some people haven't heard about it, and they'll ask if the trees 'just grow like that.' One day, this man came stomping in and started totally yelling at me, like it was my fault the fire happened. 'I just can't *believe* what this place looks like!' he stormed. 'I never would've come if I'd known, and I'm leaving right now and getting my wife and children away from this awful sight!' Seriously, he was so angry that I thought he might be dangerous or something!"
"So!" Eileen said. “Let’s gossip about something besides visitors. We're really terrible! Okay, Sarabeth—we're now approaching the town of West Yellowstone, otherwise known as West. It’s where tourists stay if they want a hotel that’s cheaper than the ones in the park. And it's also a big jumping-off point for snowmobilers in the winter."
"West's newest attraction is an IMAX theatre," Sally said. "It's such a big joke! The theatre has these films about the geysers and the wildlife—and they say it's Like Being There In Person. Isn't that just totally bizarre? Here folks are, two miles outside one of the coolest national parks in the world, and they go see Old Faithful erupt on a movie screen."
"Here we go again," said Eileen. "Please forgive our conversation this morning, Sarabeth. It’s been a hard week all around. We aren't always so down on tourists!" The others laughed.
"Yeah, it's ‘cause it's only the middle of the Mad Rush to Yellowstone, and we know that there's going to be another month of this." Natalie moaned comically.
"Anyway: we need to go to the store—I told you we were disorganized—and get some food for lunch. Also, wait—somebody needed to go to the post office, right…?"
At 9:30, we piled back into the car again.
"Wow—so now we're in Montana!" I said, as we drove out of town on a wide highway that stretched on for miles.
"Yup—and here's an interesting thing: take a look at the sign." Jon pointed out the window. "No speeding tickets here!" The speed-limit sign was as big as a billboard, and read: "SPEED LIMIT: Reasonable and prudent."
"No way—that's not for real, is it?" I said.
"Oh, it most certainly is," said Eileen.
"Gosh," Pete teased, "I sure wouldn't want to ride a bike on these roads…"
"Oh stop it!" Eileen said. "It shouldn't be that bad. Look: there's nice, wide shoulders, too."
As she spoke, we turned onto a smaller highway, and then onto a Gallatin National Forest access road. It was dirt, and we followed it into the woods for several miles before turning onto another, even bumpier road. We were surrounded by forest. After a mile and a half, we arrived at what looked like a trailhead, and piled out of the car.
"Oh my goodness," said Natalie, the first one out, "we're gonna need bug repellent today." For a few minutes, there was no talking, just intense concentration as we applied bug dope as rapidly as possible. I could almost hear the mosquitoes' stomachs rumbling.
"Alright already—it's almost ten-thirty; let's hit the road!" said Eileen. "I can't believe it took us this long!"
"I don't mind," said Sally. "The good part of starting so late is that soon we get to have lunch."
"I agree," said Pete, and our troop began walking.
We didn't see another person all day. We hiked five miles up and then retraced our steps to come down, and those ten miles—plus the couple thousand feet we gained in elevation— contained an amazing variety of life. We passed flowers, trees, green meadows, tiny picas that scurried like mice. We walked along the slippery banks of a stream, waterfalls cascading over mossy rocks. Enormous red-rock outcroppings towered on either side.
"I guess that's why it's called 'Red Canyon Trail,' Sally said. "This is gorgeous. Wow, even the creek looks red!"
“I bet these rock formations were caused by the 'Quake of '59," said Jon (I learned that the Hebgen Lake Earthquake measured 7.5 on the Richter scale, and that twenty-eight people died because of it. Also, the north shore of Hebgen Lake dropped 19 feet, causing lakeside cabins to fall into the water, and huge waves to slosh over the Hebgen Dam.)
"What would happen," Pete asked, "hypothetically, I mean, if one of those rocks fell on us?" We all sped up our hiking pace a little, and the clouds of mosquitoes moved more quickly too.
"Geez, if you didn't use DEET today, you'd probably require a blood transfusion after the hike!" said Natalie.
Each of my companions were keenly aware of the natural world. "Look at that flower!" one of them would say, and there would ensue a discussion of which species it was and when it blossomed and the habitat in which it grew. It was a most thorough ranger-led hike.
After the hike, Eileen invited us all back for dinner at her place. "So this is home," she said. The Rocket rumbled to a standstill in a small neighborhood of mobile homes in a clearing in the woods. "The rangers and maintenance people at Madison live here." She led us into the trailer she shared with three other women. "What do we have in this fridge, Sally?" asked Eileen. "It's so complicated to figure out food here," she added to me. "We're always either gone all the time and run out of sandwich stuff, or we're here a lot and we don't have any vegetables. But oh well—I guess we'll have pasta…"
"Well, hello everybody!" Eileen's roommate Haley was standing in the doorway. "Are you making dinner, Eileen? And are you all staying?"
"Yeah, they are—sorry I didn't ask, but it kind of turned into a party here…" Eileen's face appeared from within the refrigerator. "Ah-hah! There are salad ingredients. Are you gonna be around tonight, Haley?"
"No, very unfortunately…” Haley leaned against the wall, and removed her stiff black shoes. "God, today was long. And tonight I have to go work The Barricade, oh joy of all joys. There is nothing I would rather do less tonight. All I do is stand there smiling and saying, 'Sorry, I guess you didn't see all the millions of signs plastered all over, but the road is closed until tomorrow morning. The only other way to get to Old Faithful is to go a hundred miles extra around the detour…' "
"We've been dealing with The Barricade on Law Enforcement, too," said Jon. To me he said, "You must have passed some of the road construction on your way in."
I grimaced. "Yeah—and because of it, every time a car came by it covered me with mud!"
"I know, it's an inconvenience, but it's temporary and really necessary. You should've seen the road before they started tearing it up. It was so bumpy and narrow that it couldn't even be called a road. Anyway, like Haley said, we've got signs all over the park apologizing for the delays. It had to be done sometime, and they're working as fast as they can. And one thing that helps is that we close the road completely from 9:30 at night until 6:00 in the morning so the crews can work. But have people ever gone ballistic! I had a suicide threat the other night.
“This guy came up to The Barricade and insisted that we should let him through. 'I'm sorry,' I said, 'but we can't. The machines are already working and the road's closed.' I tried to be polite, and tried to believe that he hadn't seen the signs. Well, this guy went crazy.
“ 'You've gotta let me in!' he was yelling, 'my wife and I paid to come here, and we have a right to use these roads!'
“ 'Sir,' I said, “there are signs everywhere saying that the construction area closes at night.' And that's when this guy threatened suicide."
"He did not!" said Sally.
"Yes he did," Jon said. "He leans out of his window and says, 'I'm gonna shoot myself if you don't let me through! I’ve got a gun right in the back seat.' Seriously. I thought I'd heard him wrong, but he said it again. That's when one of my senior officers came up, so I didn't have to deal with the rest.
"Did he do it?" asked Pete. “Shoot himself, I mean.”
"Nah, I don't even think he had a gun. And he didn't come through the blockade, that's for sure."
"Yeah, well at least you're male!" said Haley. "Two days ago, some guy told me that he didn't have to listen to me because I was just a woman. 'You bet you have to listen to me, buster,' was what I wanted to say. Of course I had to be polite, though, and eventually it got resolved. That man, however," Haley added with a glint in her eye, “did not deserve politeness!”
I ended up sleeping on Eileen's sofa bed after we ate dinner and watched "Breakfast at Tiffany's" at the rec hall (another mobile home). Before falling asleep, I though, *This was not how I expected to experience Yellowstone National Park!*
Almost three months after I visited Sterling Mountain Community, I still often thought of my afternoon with Lila Williams, the 85-year-old weaver who had shared her artwork and her stories and inspired me with her happiness. When I left Lila's house late on that chilly April day, I'd told her that I was honored to have met her. What had she said? Something like, *You will meet many amazing people when you open your heart.*