The ubiquity of globally-positioned cell phones have a definite impact on road travel. To whit: the optimum route. Being alerted to traffic updates, detours around accidents, and to-the-minute arrival times is an information-age miracle that I admittedly take for granted.
But unfortunately for us as we decided on our route from Glacier to Yellowstone, there was no satellite over our heads. Or at least, the ones above us weren't associated with our particular cell phone carriers. Jenn had been using "roaming" for most of the trip to get us our directions, but her roaming data had been exhausted. There's irony in there, somewhere.
So we asked for directions at the Hungry Horse grocery. Our anachronism seemed to be met without question by the employees, who hollered across the claustrophobic, bleach-white, air-conditioned store in conference. Their suggestions differed only slightly from my Rand-McNally-inspired itinerary, so with a careful quantity of uncertainty applied liberally to my already shaky navigational skills, we began our way south-ish.
Though I've foreshadowed this journey to contain some directional challenges, it was actually fairly straightforward. We took Highway 83 down to my old homie Highway 90, stopped in Butte, and searched for a campsite outside of the park. By this point, it was around 11 PM, and I was tired.
We stopped the podcast to which I was listening intently, explaining the art and intricacy of bonsai, and began a pitched and blackened ride down a road that would benefit greatly from some graveling. The GPS-guided phone directed us straight to the middle of a field. While we could have driven in the gate and parked for the night, we didn't want to risk waking the neighbors. But there was supposedly a campsite in the area. We made turn after turn, affecting about-faces in driveways and shining the headlights into large farm houses and weathered buck-and-rail fence.
Eventually, we found a wooden sign that suggested the location of a campground, several miles down the rocky, dirt road. Exhausted and punchy by now, I stepped on the gas pedal, skidding us around potholes and right-angled turns. I fancy myself in general as a fairly safe and responsible driver (as seems prudent given my transportative lifestyle), but in this particular instance, I was not. Not in the least.
After narrowly missing a toaster-sized rock in the middle of the road and getting more than one (deserved) reprimand from my fellow traveler, we bounded upon the campsite. We pulled into the first spot and I dove as forcefully into bed as I had been driving. Sleep accomplished.
Our plan was to rise early and get into Yellowstone to find a campsite before the crowds. Our plan failed. Instead, we cleaned and repacked the van (this ritual should have become a staple far earlier in my van-dwelling career) (Thanks Jenn), eventually meandering into the park's north entrance. We miraculously found a place to stay at the Mammoth Hot Springs Campground, ran into a friend from California that was working in the area, and went to explore the Mammoth Hot Springs.
Now, I have something to admit. Despite Yellowstone being the first National Park in the world, and one of most famous icons of American wilderness, I knew next to nothing about what the park actually contained. I knew that Old Faithful existed, and that bison were common, but I had no idea what to expect. Jenn and I discussed this at length as we entered the park. Were there going to be mountains? hills? rivers? plains? or none of the above? And as we drove through, our first impressions were... not very impressed.
But wait! Let me be explain before you go accusing me of disrespecting this national treasure of ours. We had just come from the soaring majesty of Glacier National Park, a place where mountains swept the horizons and glaciers had seeded the valleys with dark, gorgeous forests. And before that, the dazzling variety of Olympic National Park, where dripping rainforests demarcated the land between rocky beaches and rugged peaks. Not to mention the memories of Yosemite and Zion, where you can stand on a valley floor and place your hand on a cliff face that vaults thousands of sheer vertical feet above you. To me, this was a National Park.
The rolling hills and pale, washed-out sage were beautiful, there's no doubt about that. But the effect wasn't spectacular, at least by my standards. Unfair? Perhaps. But over the course of our visit, I began to realize what made this place so incredibly unique.
Take our first stop as a primer. Mammoth Hot Springs was named because of the rather large thermally-heated springs that are in the area. One consequence of these springs is the presence of "travertine terraces." As lava-heated water gushes to the surface, it pulls calcium carbonate from the underlying limestone to the surface at a rate of over two tons a day. The calcium carbonate cools quickly once it hits air, and precipitates from the water, forming travertine, which accumulates here faster than bubbles from a dishwasher filled with hand soap. The hot conditions and mineral rich water allows algae to flourish, which results in metallic shades of orange and bronze. These terraces are constantly shifting, being reformed and recycled back into the water table.
If you find this sort of thing interesting, but a bit academic, then you'll be in the same state of mind as I was in. Prepare yourself, because this is what sets Yellowstone apart. This place is intellectually engaging and bafflingly dynamic. Once you realize what's going on beneath the surface, it's hard to decide whether to run or to stay. It's like a massive science lab, surrounded by nature.
As it turns out, the area that is now Yellowstone was once a mountain. 640,000 years ago, that mountain blew up in a massive supervolcanic eruption, leaving behind a 1,350-square-mile crater, known as a caldera. In this caldera, the crust of the Earth runs thinly. There are more swollen reserves of molten rock and magma closer to the surface than anywhere else on the continent. This proximity to the underworld has left the landscape of Yellowstone scarred with portals to the roiling, untamed power of the Earth's core.
We took our friend Matt captive and traversed the boardwalks of the Norris Geyser Basin with him. Ominous clouds blanketed the sky above us, threatening stormy weather but adding some dramatic lighting to experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of the hydrothermal features. The brilliant blues and turquoises, the gurgling reproaches, and sulfuric effluvia.
The clouds rolled above us, but the weather held steady, although a bit more of a breeze would have been welcome. The mudpots, fascinating as they are, play host to a community of microbes that exude a rather potent mixture of hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid, which, in addition to digesting solid rock (whoa), smell like a rancid fart.
After gasping and laughing at the stochastic and guttural utterances from bubbling pools of mud with names like "The Palpitator," our noses could only take so much of the acrid, chemical-laced air.
Fortunately for us, Yellowstone also appears to be the most commercialized and visitor-friendly national parks out there. We had exhibits and museums aplenty to entertain us while we regained our olfactory senses. The gift shops offered plenty of goods upon which we could spend our pinched pennies.
We drove along the park loop road, regarding wildlife and park visitors with equal interest. Bison were commonplace, shuffling their shaggy bulk along the meadows and fields, ruminating in that unmistakably bovine manner.
Most of the stops along the road were variations on the geothermal oddities to which we were becoming accustomed. As much as the fantastic heat below the surface was fueling the turmoil under our feet, we too were warming to the strange sensory experience around us.
As a microbiology major in college so long ago, it was actually fairly amazing to see so many strategies of single-celled life collected in a single place. The diversity of extreme environments offered by the superheated, acerbic water has given rise to extraordinarily different communities of microbes. These groups of bugs have evolved in such prehistoric ways that to trace their origins is to engage in a practice of geologic timescale. Academic? Yes. Incredible? Also yes.
We eventually came to the most psychedelic of these hot springs, the Grand Prismatic Spring. Surrounded by perfectly turquoise pools, we were unprepared for the acres of ochre that reached out from the center of the grand spring itself, looking like some sort of photo-negative sun on an alien planet.
This feature is the most photographed in all of Yellowstone, which is an amazing feat in itself. As such, you'll have to forgive the number of photos that I have of it. I just couldn't decide which ones to cut out.
Our major destination for the day was further down the road, past bison, elk, and cliffs of obsidian. Old Faithful beckoned, and we couldn't help but spectate in the quintessential Yellowstone experience.
An essential part of the Old Faithful show seems to be the build-up. There are fairly accurate estimates for when the geyser will erupt, but they come with a 10-20 minute window. As a result, the waiting crowd stands around, fingers on cameras, making half-hearted jokes about how this will be the time that it doesn't go off. Thankfully for us, and every single person that has gone before us, our experience was not the one.
As the afternoon wore on, we swung through Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake over 7000 feet of elevation in North America. It served to further the fact that was slowly dawning upon us the further we drove: Yellowstone may not have the mountain ranges of Glacier, but for a sheer collection of natural beauty, spectacular places, and untamed wildlife, it is peerless.
The sun seemed reluctant to set, giving us what felt like hours of dusk as we drove back to our campsite for the night. A huge traffic jam clued us in to some wildlife sighting, so we joined the cars parked by the side of the road and asked some bystanders what we should be being amazed by. Apparently, a sickly bison had drowned in a roadside pond, and a huge grizzly bear was currently making the most of the situation. A nearby family had set up a spotting scope on the situation, and cheerfully allowed us to gape at the spectacle. The mighty carnivore was alternately pacing and pulling bright red tissue from the side of the bison. The effort the bear had to expend tearing meat from the victim was eye-watering and gasp-inducing.
The chill on oncoming night pulled us from the gory scene, and propelled us along a gorgeous, sunset painted stretch of road back to our campsite. The stars, shrouded tonight by clouds, let us sleep without their numbing brilliance on this night. Thankfully, the night before we had been treated to a star-gazing that was still emblazoned on our corneas.
In the morning, we went to go see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. A rather unoriginal name, by my condescending estimation. The reality turned out to be worthy of the superlative. My continual underestimation of the park was becoming a point of hilarity for the group. The mid-morning sun played softly and gently across the ferrous rhyolite. Even the hordes of gregarious Asian tourists with some rather messy bathroom habits couldn't detract from the natural beauty.
(To clarify, I have no problem with Asian tourists. I have problems when a toilet seat is covered with muddy footprints and urine.)
We drove through the Lamar Valley to leave the park, stopping by a wolf den that had recently become a nursery for pups. The den itself was barely visible with binoculars, and showed no signs of life, which was to be expected at this time of day. The view was still idyllic and serene, with pronghorns, elk, and bison scattered about the meadow, unperturbed by our presence or absence.
Big skies and rolling plains smoothed our exit. We took the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway towards Cody, Wyoming to visit our friend's house in Powell. I would say that it rivals Highway 1 in California for sheer, jaw-dropping scenery. There was no ocean as backdrop, but the Beartooth Mountains were stunning against the dark forest. We didn't stop for many photos, so you'll have to take my word for it. Drive it if you're ever in the area.
Ever eastward we traveled, though the bulk of our trip was now done. A quick stop through the midwest was all that stood between us and New York.