Night 8: Steaming Yellowstone

Trip Start Jun 20, 2012
Trip End Jul 18, 2012

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Flag of United States  , Wyoming
Wednesday, June 27, 2012

We drove 110 miles around Yellowstone National Park. Weather started windy again and quickly warmed to the upper 60's. Mostly clear skies. Tonight is supposed to be very cold in the 30's, as was last night.

I have just pulled into Mammoth Camp after a second full day in Yellowstone. Yesterday was dedicated to wildlife. Today we toured Yellowstone's famous thermal areas stretching 50 miles along a straight path south of here.

I am never interested in starting this particular tour, but once I get going, it always satisfies. It is easy to forget how special a place Yellowstone is. It has the world's biggest collection of geysers, is full of hot springs, and smokes. The landscape here literally smokes because the crust of the earth is so thin here. YNP, after all, is on top of the cauldera of a super volcano. When it last blew, 665000000 years ago, ash covered 60% of North America. Until it blows again, you can enjoy its wonders.

We started as soon as the tent warmed up which required the sun to get high enough to break the mountains across the road. We are like lizards, waiting for the sun to move. When it did we were off quickly to find a place far from our sleeping place to make breakfast. This is standard procedure for bear country camping.

Jessica decided against eating in busy Mammoth town and so we drove south up the valley to a place called Sheepeater's Cliff. It was somewhat familiar. It was also extremely beautiful. A 75 foot cliff made up of stacks of volcanic columns, half collapsed guarded our backs as we cooked. Opposite the cliff was a small, rushing creek and a glen of pine and alders. It was all summer green. Andrew was delighted to play with the chipmunks that made their home in the  
cracks of the cliff. We also watched a family of marmots doing their day's work.

Cooking required us to know the direction of the wind. Signs around warned that a bear was "frequenting the area." These signs are more like a watch. Yesterday's signs that proclaimed "bear danger" are a warning. Those were the signs we found in YNP last year in the Waipiti  
Lake area after a man was torn apart by a mother grizzly in front of his wife. The "frequenting" sign means there was scat or tree scratches.

So we cooked. The entire time tourists pulled in and out to see the cliff, I suppose. I mean, who wouldn't turn off the main road when approached with a sign reading "Sheepeater's Cliff?"

I was most disturbed by a large Japanese family that filed out of a van. As they do, they began photographing each other in front of the cliff. One man, however, decided to photograph our picnic. I grabbed our camera because I was going to go take photos of him if he tried it  
again, but he decided pointing was better than photographing the Americans having a picnic in the woods. Perhaps this us because he comes from a country where they individually wrap gummi bears. So eating outside must have seemed foolish and quaint.

After breakfast Andrew led us on a short hike through the adjacent woods. We walked along the water as Andrew delighted in each obstacle he faced.

We continued southward and stopped here and there to photograph wildlife and steaming holes in the ground. We had to pass many places since it was so crowded. Along the road we saw elk swimming in the Madison River.

I turned west into West Yellowstone where we bought groceries, including 3 hamburger patties. After, we stopped at a store wherein Jessica buys most of her YNP gifts. They have the only decent prices in town. Working the registers are two very old men decked out in Western wear.

While Jess enjoyed her hunt, Andrew and I walked up and down the main drag looking for interests. We got a slurpee and went to talk to Jess, still in the store. She was talking to a Louisiana couple who sold their house and were now living two weeks here and there in an RV.  
That is quite the life!

As Andrew and I walked, we saw it coming down the street again. I first noticed it parked at a rest stop in Minnesota. Then in the Badlands. I saw it a third time in Montana on I-90. It was a bus decorated a bit like a Mardi Gras float in the Spanish Town parade. It was the self-proclaimed "Jesus Bus." on the back is a huge star of David and the offer of Jesus tees for sale. The sides and front were covered in colorful pronouncements about Jesus.

We returned to the park to eat lunch at one of favorite spots: the Nez Perce Creek. It is a semi-shady picnic area that is adjacent to a fast-flowing, shallow creek. Sine Andrew was a baby, he has enjoyed walking across from bank to bank. The bottom is a bit rocky so we were prepared with water shoes. This year Andrew only fell in once and got his shirt a bit wet. We ate lunch and then went back into the creek. Andrew began a project of reshaping the little waterfall by moving large rocks around. If I hadn't noticed he was covered in goose bumps, he would've hapily succombed to hypothermia.

As we were walking, a man walked in with his son and proceeded to gut a trout in the water 20 feet upstream from where we were wading. I might have done it differently is all I'm saying.

We continued southward and drove the Firehole Lake Road which passes several loud vents and geysers. My favorite is Young Hopeful, which spits up about 10 feet of water every 45 seconds or so. The hot waters are home to specialized microbes that mat the lakebeds and give them  
distinct and often beautiful colors. The water steams and boils. Firehole Lake is another hot spot for marmot spotting too.

There are three major geyser basins leading toward Old Faithful, an attraction so big that it has its own exit ramp to control traffic flow. We turned in since Andrew, very excited about the volcano idea, wanted to see a "big geyser." (Funny note: He referrred to the geysers  
as "he" and "him" because they were guy sirs.)

The next predicted eruption of Old Faithful was posted to go down in one hour so we shopped the gift shop, explored the newly constructed VC museum, and bought ice cream. You cannot get bored waiting for Old Faithful. The time came and we fathered around the steaming geyser  
with about 500 (no kidding) other people. Everyone had a good view.

They predict the geyser by timing each eruption. If it last less than 2 and a half minutes, it will go off in almost exactly 60 minutes. If more, it takes 90 minutes to reload.

It went off about 1 minute after the predicted time. It gurgled and steamed and then blew up boiling water several stories into the air. It is a wonder.

When it died, the crowd began weakly clapping. I like to imagine it was the haughty upper middle class middle aged tourists (my least favorites). Nature was not performing for you. It doesn't really need applause, but if you are going to applaud Creation, I say do it loudly and with great fanfare. Old Faithful is a magnificient force of nature and deserves more than a smattering of applause from goonish vacationers used to watching hidef action movies, going through the  

The sound of those vents and those geysers make my heart leap around in my chest.

It was getting late so we headed back up toward Mammoth along much of the same route. We stopped at the Midway Geyser Basin, the home of the amazing Excelsior Geyser. While Old Faithful goes off every hour and Young Hopeful every minute, Excelsior goes off whenever it's good and ready. The first record was a massive, crater causing explosion in the 1880's, which was followed by ten years of eruptions. It was 300 feet high whenever it went off. The next eruption was a 47 hour long series of explosions in 1985. Today it still throws up a lit of water, but not explosively. The water pools up in the crater, making tremendous steam, and then flows over the crater walls into the adjacent Firehole River in several steamy red waterfalls. Amazing!

The sun was now setting so we hurried north past the Norris basin, today's most geologically active area. We passed fields of strange grazing cranes and magnificent elk. There is nothing like a bull elk. It is a dangerous animal, but much like the super volcano, it is dormant mostly. Powerful muscles hold up huge racks of antlers. They can be mean. I have seen it, which is why I don't mess with them like the people getting out of their cars to crowd the beasts for a good  
photo. I guess to them antlers mean good old white-tailed deer. (I would like to point out that I have been charged by white-tailed deer on two separate occasions.)

We returned to Mammoth, an elk haven, and went to camp. Jessica and I had a bite and settled in. I slept well until about 2:30 when the wind and my imagination picked up. I have been up for an hour listening to the strange sounds the wind is making on the tent, imagining hulking bull elk or foraging bears. I am a wreck here.

So I will just try to say "wind" everytime my heart races and go to sleep. Tomorrow we have a long ride south and then west into Idaho where we will meet up with the Snake River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. 
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