It was over three hundred miles to Yellowstone. The plan now, which only materialized after reaching the previous destination, was to try to make it there by early afternoon. I’d left before sunrise to be at the Flathead Reservation, and now sped south, from Kicking Horse back to the 90-freeway heading east. I’d been on all kinds of roads the past week, but few freeways. Speed didn’t feel much of a factor on the freeway. At one point I looked down and saw I was going ninety miles an hour, and other cars were still passing me. It was like I was racing for my life. If I couldn’t see all of America in six weeks, then I was screwed.
Montana is the Big Sky State people dream about. Beyond the windshield that was all I saw, an enormous blue sky and white clouds, with an occasional snow-capped mountain leaning into the picture. I sped past Bearmouth and Deer Lodge, then took the 359 at Cardwell to the 287 south at Harrison. That road was a wilderness rollercoaster. I barely slowed down from the freeway, riding each hump high, leaning into every curve. By the time I got to Hebgen, or Earthquake, Lake, the muscles in my back were strained. I had to get out of the car to take a look.
The lake was created in created in 1959 when an earthquake killed 28 people and caused millions of dollars in damage. According to some survivors, it was the loudest noise they’d ever heard. If the victims weren’t killed by the earthquake, which opened up a chasm in the earth, then they were done in by the landslide, and if that didn’t get them, they probably drowned in the resulting flood. Houses, roads, bridges, and even large sections of forest were all destroyed.
I knew I was playing with fire, showing up at Yellowstone without a reservation. That summer season some of the National Parks had started requiring reservations to get in. I knew that getting a campground was out of the question, but not to even get in would’ve been a stunning blow. As it was, my luck held out. Fortune continued to ride on my shoulders, at least until that evening.
At the West Gate I presented my National Park Pass and it was met with a smile and free map. I’d been to the park three or four times by now and was only interested in the southern passage, the one with the greatest concentration of geothermal activity, leading to Old Faithful. Once I got into the park, I saw that the highway was jammed coming from the opposite direction and jammed up on the 89 heading north. Going with the flow had served me well, so far.
Yellowstone is mostly located in Wyoming, but also extends into Montana and Idaho. It was created in 1872, the first National Park in America. It provides haven for 70,000 species of plants and trees, and animals which include wolves, coyotes, cougars, lynx, black bears, grizzly bears, bison, moose, mule deer, elk, pronghorn, mountain goats, and big horn sheep. It is the Serengeti Plain of the Americas. All of the geothermal activity in the park is due to the fact that it rests on a volcanic caldera that runs 37 by 18 miles, and 3 to 7 miles deep. This gives rise to the many geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles, or steam vents, that make it such a singular destination, as if it weren’t already special enough.
There were a lot of visitors when I pulled over at the Fountain Paint Pot Trail, but it could’ve been way worse. There were still places to park and a little room to roam. A sign at the entrance warns of boiling water and unstable ground. It was like taking a Spirit Walk, no drugs or initiation necessary. The landscape was that revelatory, a place where the sky and underworld meet, a collision of elements and minerals, danger, and shape-shifting vapors.
I walked through a stretch of stripped trees, trapped in a chemical bath. Ravines and fissures ruptured the earth, like a view of the desert from an airplane. Beyond that, clouds of steam drifted beneath the great fortresses of white cloud rolling through the sky.
I reached the Celestine Pool, so very blue it sought to rival the sky. To dive into it would mean being scalded alive, but what a way to go. Across the way, a white mud pot gargled and belched. Above it, the clouds had now turned blue. My shadow, and that of the fence, fell across the walkway, the essence of a transitory moment. I would go first. The fence would go second. The mud pots would outlast us all, but even they would meet a change. What would last? The earth? The universe? Not even those, not forever.
Down the road, was the Midway Geyser Basin. Here I had to park beside the road and walk a long way back. Crossing a bridge, I followed the walkway past the Excelsior Geyser Crater, on my way to investigate the largest hot spring in the park, the Grand Prismatic Spring. The water on each side was shallow, acidic, and treacherous. A dozen hats floated on it, blown off and never to be fetched. In some areas the water reflected the sky like a mirror. There were clouds above and clouds below. Steam floated in between. Other visitors, staggered along the boardwalk, took on ghostly attributes. It was eternity, in the blink of an eye.
I’d already seen more than enough to justify my visit but couldn’t help stopping by the Old Faithful Inn to see if I could watch Old Faithful blow. Since it erupts twenty times a day it seemed my chances were good. Old Faithful is the biggest celebrity in the park. If not the largest or oldest of the geysers, it is certainly the most famous, and that has something to do with its consistency. At the Inn, they were predicting that it would blow within the next hour. Although it was getting late, I could wait around for that.
In the cafeteria, I got a pulled pork sandwich and tonic water and returned to Old Faithful to get a seat up front. A few hundred visitors were waiting. A few times the geyser got a little active and faked everyone out, but then simmered down again and bubbled underground. It wasn’t until I’d taken the last bite of my sandwich and put my garbage in a trash can that it went off. Hurray, just like the 4th of July. It shot a hundred feet in the air. Everyone got to their feet. A few people began to applaud.
As soon as it started going down again there was a mad rush for the parking lot. It was like leaving a baseball game after a walk off homerun in the bottom of the 9th, a big celebration, but also a hassle to get out. The sun was sinking quickly. I needed to find a camping spot. So far, I was eight for eight on finding some place to camp at the last second. My luck was about to run out.