Nature is so powerful, so strong. Capturing its essence is not easy – your work becomes a dance with light and the weather. It takes you to a place within yourself. – Annie Leibovitz, American Photographer
Sunk deep in the woods near the shores of Lake Bowman, I traced my route to Yellowstone, then further south into Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, before falling into a restless sleep. Twelve hours later, as I turn onto the same dusty dirt road that led me into the North Fork area of Glacier National Park, the tiny community of Polebridge, Montana begins to stir in dawn’s light. Sunlight streaks through a forest of lifeless black trees, remnants of the scorching 1988 wildfire, as huckleberry blooms underneath. Ahead, Route 83 glides alongside Swan Lake, before dropping south into Flathead Valley.
As late morning skies begin to darken, Sleeping Giant Mountain rests in peaceful blue above the capital. Elaborate Victorian architecture stares up at Highway 12, wooden vestiges of the Montana gold rush that made Helena one of the wealthiest cities in the United States by the late nineteenth century. In the distance, with garnet spires towering 230 feet above the street, Cathedral of St. Helena calls the wicked to repent beneath stained glass windows depicting the fall of Adam and Eve. As the road curves south and the Missouri River comes into view, every preacher who wore a white, short sleeve shirt and came to my childhood town for a summer tent revival silently tiptoes into my head. “I can’t read a lick, but I believe every word,” said one, as he held his battered dogeared Bible above his head. All these years later, I’m still convinced he was honest about the first part of the sentence.
Gardiner, Montana sits on the Yellowstone River, at the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, a few miles above the Wyoming border. In 1903, the partially constructed arch at Yellowstone’s entrance, with the inscription, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People” was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt. Today, during high season Gardiner is dominated by tourists. When we pack up and leave, a blessing and a curse, it’s a small western town of bars, unflattered hotels and modern day cowboys. Gardiner also holds a bit of my personal history. As does all of Yellowstone. Most of it is appropriate for public consumption.
The day I arrived home after graduating from Morehead State in 1978, my fiend Paul called and asked if I had a job lined up. Paul was the youngest of three Miller brothers I had met after my freshman year in college. I was introduced to the Miller boys by M.J. Palazzolo, a Columbia MD, PhD student who, like myself, was working during the summer at Jones & Laughlin Steel. I was close friends with Mike, the oldest Miller, but Paul and I shared a love of being outside – and drinking. Although, to be honest, at that time my love was slightly tilted toward the latter of the two activities. But I digress. My immediate answer to Paul’s question was stifled laughter – then a simple “no.”
“Smitty, I have an idea.” He is now standing in my parent’s side yard, which also served as a brown tinged postage stamp, my dad being averse to using water on grass. Hearing “no”, Paul had apparently hung up and rushed over. Rushing being a relative term in the mustard colored Torino, with one door creased beyond opening. Paul lived about 20 minutes away in Hamtramck, a largely Polish community that bordered the City of Detroit.
“Let’s hear it numb nuts,” I said. Remember, we were close friends.
“Let’s go to Yellowstone.” He has this grin on his face. He’s serious.
“Tomorrow!” He’s giddy.
“Tomorrow?” I’ve been home less than 24 hours.
“Tomorrow means tomorrow. Let’s leave tomorrow. Tell me you’re not still thinking of running for dog catcher, city council or whatever happy horseshit notion you had.”
“Took city council off my list of likely job scenarios. Gotta buy paper, a pen – some kind of clipboard. I could probably pull that off, but then you need to stand in front of Kroger or the hardware store and collect signatures. I’m not prepared for that. I thought my heart could get me there but I was fooling myself.” Long pause of self-reflection. “How do we get to Yellowstone? The Torino? We wouldn’t get south of Toledo in that shitbox.”
“What about the MG?” He’s serious.
Paul is referring to my 1976, blue on camel, MG Midget. Now, for those of you who have never had the pleasure of driving, or riding in, an MG Midget, here’s how you can easily simulate what you’ve missed. Sit down in the smallest closet in your house while holding your iphone. Now imagine the door in front of you is a windshield and the walls on either side of you are made of the thinnest metal allowed by any government standard – think flexible – and you are essentially riding in an MG Midget, with the radio on.
“The MG?” I can’t believe he’s serious.
“Yeah, the MG in your driveway. Your MG. The one you drive every day. Are you drunk?”
“Not drunk. Just trying to envision the two of us driving 4,000 miles in my MG. You’re serious aren’t you?”
“As a blackhead. Why not? We can each take a few clothes and a sleeping bag. It’s not like we need much. You rarely change clothes anyway. Come on. You know you want to see Yellowstone. Trust me, there aren’t any employers beating down your door. You do realize you may never get hired, right? Who’s gonna hire this?” And with that he points to my head. I assume he means my hair which is rather unwieldy, but only because my idea of maintenance is to run my fingers through it when I wake up. Which now is impossible due to the sheer mass. It was the late 70’s after all. I was years ahead of the big hair trend of the 80’s.
“This is a work of art my friend,” pointing to my hair. “No need to rag on me out of jealousy.”
“Jealousy?” He laughs. Hard. “So do you want to go or not? I have my mom’s Mobile gas card so we don’t need much cash.” He is now doing a little dance.
To say Mrs. Miller’s Mobile card pushed me over the edge would be a vast simplification of my overall rather complex thought process. It was merely the last item of consideration – and yes it pushed me over the edge. Truth is, Paul and I had discussed Yellowstone for a few years and agreed we would one day make it out there together.
“How much money do you have?” Paul asks.
“I could probably put together $50 if I had to.” This is probably not true.
“You have to. We can get all of our gas on my mom’s Mobile card, but I’m not sure we can buy food and booze with it. I’ve saved about $100, so between us we have $150 and a Mobile card. That should be good for at least two or three weeks, don’t you think?”
“Probably. If we don’t eat that much. How much is a fifth of Kessler up here these days?”
“$5.50. We should buy a few fifths before we leave in case we can’t find it out west. Or God forbid it’s more expensive out there. That should be enough to get us there with a little left over. Any idea how long this drive will take?”
“Paul. You call and ask if I want to go to Yellowstone tomorrow. And you don’t know how far it is?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t know how far it is. It’s somewhere between two and three thousand miles…give or take.” Give or take a thousand miles? “I know how far it is. I just don’t know how long it will take to drive there. Stop bustin’ my balls Smitty. I come up with a beautiful plan for the unemployed and you wanna bust my balls about a timeline?”
“Wait…did you say plan? This is your plan? Pick me up in the morning, I have Mrs. Miller’s Mobile card and we can drive to Yellowstone with a few fifths of whiskey? That’s your plan? Calling it a plan is a bit of a stretch Paul. Which begs another fairly important question. Where are we going to sleep?”
“Sleeping bags.” He looks at me as if I’m slow. “Campgrounds. The MG. It’s not as difficult as you’re making it seem.”
“So on the ground for three weeks?”
“Listen, we both know we will end up meeting some people and getting a few nights on at least a couch. Maybe we get real lucky and end up in a hotel, if you know what I mean.” And with that he actually winks, like an eighty year-old to his assisted living bathroom attendant after being handed his walker. Thanks Sonny. Why does Paul seem like an old man to me at times? His Polish roots? Remind me to ask Mrs. Miller. No, scratch that. Mrs. Miller scares me.
“Okay, come in the house with me so I can tell my folks I’m leaving.” That was easy. “They won’t get angry if you’re with me, they actually think you’re a good guy. And for that you owe me.”
“I’m not going in there. Your mom scares the hell out of me. How can you not fear a woman who has never worn pants? It’s not rational. I’m taking off. Pick me up at 11:00, let’s get an early start.” He turns and walks to his car. Travolta before Travolta. The mustard colored Torino screeches as it turns onto Gardenia Avenue and disappears. We left the next morning. At 11:30.
Set among sweeping valleys, grand canyons, raging rivers and glorious mountains, Yellowstone’s violent heart beats just below the surface. Resting on a supervolcano, feeding the largest group of thermodynamic features on earth, her skin is pockmarked by natural forces that have risen from these lands for over a million years. Hot springs, heated by a deep source of magma, surrounded by chalky earth, offer a technicolor glimpse of the abyss. Finding narrow openings from just beneath the surface, geysers erupt in a fierce torrent of white steam. Travertine terraces, a bitter marriage of water and limestone, flow staggered in constant rebirth. Fumaroles hiss and whistle, as acid mudpots pop, gases turning rock into clay as the very soul of Yellowstone shifts in restless slumber.
Yellowstone National Park is massive. By air it’s 63 miles north to south, 54 miles west to east. With 2,219,789 acres covering 3,468 square miles, Yellowstone is larger than Rhode Island or Delaware. Mapping a path that takes in large swaths of Yellowstone and Grand Teton to the south can be intimidating. Using Route 89, which runs north-south the length of Yellowstone, then into Grand Teton National Park, my plan was to spend the next several days exploring the hydrothermal features of Yellowstone’s west side, then venture down to Grand Teton for several days, before returning north and exploring Yellowstone’s east side. I had campsites reserved for each night. Indian Creek, Grant Village, West Yellowstone, Colter Bay Village, Jenny Lake, Canyon Village and Tower Fall. On the Fourth of July I am leaving the park and heading to Cody, Wyoming for some fireworks. For a brief moment I wish I had a pair of cowboy boots.
Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, the site of Fort Yellowstone, sits 5 miles south of Gardiner. For over a decade after being established as the world’s first National Park on March 1, 1872, special interest groups, including railroad and mining interests attempted to commercialize and privatize park lands. In 1883, as a result of the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill, the Interior Department transferred control of the park to the War Department, ending commercialization attempts in the park. To enforce the new legislation, Ist U.S. Cavalry was ordered to the Park, where they established Camp Sheridan. When construction on a new fort began in 1891, Camp Sheridan was renamed Fort Yellowstone. The U. S. Army continued to use Fort Yellowstone until they turned over control of the park and the fort to the newly formed National Park Service in October 1918. On July 31, 2003, Fort Yellowstone was designated a National Historic Landmark.
“Blessings on Uncle Sam’s Soldiers. They have done the job well, and every pine tree is waving its arms for joy.” – John Muir
Today, Albright Visitor Center is housed in what was originally the bachelor officers’ quarters. Many of the original wood-framed “cottage style” buildings, some with flourishes of Colonial Revival architecture, still remain. Other structures, designed by architects Reed and Stem and Robert Reamer, built primarily from locally quarried sandstone, are now used as administrative offices and residences for National Park Service employees. Across the street, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, originally National Hotel, has been welcoming travelers by stagecoach, railroad and automobiles since 1883.
Leaving Mammoth Hot Springs, her wooden pathways through travertine terraces and view of the steel towered bridge spanning Gardner River, the grey hexagonal basalt flow of Sheepeater Cliff sits a short distance from the road. Further south, the black glass of Obsidian Cliff glistens in the sun. Forged when lava came in contact with a glacier, lodgepole pine forming a line of green along the crest, the 98 foot vertically furrowed cliff still bears scars from the 1988 fire. To the east, the sloping shoulder of Roaring Mountain smolders, as countless steam vents send expanding pale white clouds slowly skyward, repeating a scene captured by Ansel Adams in 1942. Where the road bends west, I stop and hike the boardwalks of Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest, oldest, and most dynamic of Yellowstone’s thermal areas, before heading west along Madison River to the small town of West Yellowstone.
National Park border towns vary wildly not simply in size, but in cultural offerings, eateries, lodging and kitsch. West Yellowstone embraces a bit of all the above. The beautiful Union Pacific Depot, opened in 1909 to welcome travelers arriving on the Oregon Short Line’s Yellowstone Special. Bullwinkles, The Grizzly Lounge, Buffalo Bar and Casino. Coffee houses, boxed lunches and chuckwagon dinners. The six story Yellowstone Giant Screen. And lots of neon. Old and new. Big Sky Anglers, orange on brown. The Dude Motel, a smoking cowboy against blocks of yellow. I grabbed a quick sandwich and spent the next hour roaming the streets taking photos of neon signs. As I walked to the van and my drive back to Madison Campground, the evening skies opened up with chilly rain.
Madison Campground sits about 14 miles east of West Yellowstone, 16 miles north of Old Faithful. Nearby, the Gibbon and Firehole rivers join to form the Madison River, before it empties into Hebgen Lake, just west of the park’s border. Between Madison and Old Faithful, three of Yellowstone’s largest geyser basins, Lower, Midway and Upper Geyser Basin, embrace the steaming underworld. Each with its own version of wonder, draped in hellish landscape.
Fire Hole Lake Drive slithers between rusted earth and vivid blue boiling water. White Dome Geyser, blurts steam from chalky rings above a barren mound. Great Fountain Geyser emerges from brittle crust, its plume reflected in a surrounding thin layer of water. To the south, the multi-colored face of Grand Prismatic Spring, ravaged by thermophile bacteria, glows a transparent sapphire. Scattered blue wavelengths of clear shimmering light, echo rings of jade, and burnt orange, before moving outward in streams of reddish-brown. Below, once glorious Excelsior Geyser, sits still and silent, steam the only sign of what it once was and what it is yet to be. Slowly circling the springs, one in a crowded line, a sense of foreboding mingles with wonder, as earth’s hidden pathways, her arteries, lay at my feet.
Old Faithful sits behind the Visitor Education Center, a solitary piercing of earth, against a backdrop of distant pine. As you walk through the center, approximate eruption times are posted. According to the guide, the daily 20+ eruptions are “predicted with a 90 percent confidence rate, within a 10 minute variation, based on the duration and height of the previous eruption.” I arrived only a few minutes before an eruption. Tourists lined the wooden walkway, while others sat on a few rows of bench seating. Like clockwork, Old faithful began to gurgle, baubles dancing free before a low slowly building roar emerged, lifting a white column over 150 feet into the sky. Drifting on the wind, a pattering sound of returning water slapped the ground. People cheered and clapped. If there is someone in the crowd not taking a photo, I didn’t see them. As the geyser becomes small and still, conversations begin to take place, a string of glowing adjectives, interlaced with the occasional “that’s it?” As I walk back to the center, an elderly woman sits on a bench with a man I am assuming is her husband. He is gently handing her his handkerchief. She takes it and slowly begins to wipe her eyes. As politely as I could, I asked if she was okay. If they were okay. Both looked up at me. “Yes,” said the gentleman, smiling. “She’s okay.” I look to her. Her skin is like parchment. “I never thought I would get to see that,” she whispers. Then she reachout out and gently touched my hand.
Crossing Route 89 at 7,988 feet, the Continental Divide snakes its way underneath the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Near the southern edge of Yellowstone’s caldera, Lewis Lake rests high on the rhyolite lava flows of Pitchstone Plateau. One of nine named plateaus in Yellowstone, south and west of the Gallatin and Absaroka mountain ranges, these plateaus are part of the much larger Yellowstone Plateau and dominate areas across the park. On the eastern horizon, Mount Sheridan haughtily sits astride the Red Mountains. While the Lewis River leads me toward Moose Falls and the park’s southern entrance, dusk gathers in the space between the trees. Minutes later I cross Snake River and enter Grand Teton National Park.
As I cross the lower lobby of Jackson Lake Lodge, a broad set of stairs leads to the second floor. Near the top of the stairs, I begin to realize that something extraordinary awaits. Something visually breathtaking begins to unfold. As I step onto exquisite oriental carpets spread beneath mission style furniture, 60-foot floor to ceiling windows frame pristine Jackson Lake, Elk Island and the majestic Teton Range bathed in moonlight. Crossing the room, the scope and grandeur become overwhelming, as if a heavy velvet curtain has been drawn back to reveal paradise. It is perhaps the most pure, unencumbered view of a mountain range in the lower 48 states. Dumbstruck, I stand in front of the window as the lake returns the moon’s crystalline white stare.
Colter Bay Village grazes the shore of Jackson Lake, a few miles north of the lodge, so I backtrack to my campsite along Teton Park Road. Just before the cutoff, a couple of cars are pulled to the side of the road. Their headlights on, they sit at odd angles, beams scattering into the forest. To the west, above the trees, there is a smudge of light. A thin line of charcoal beneath rose colored clouds. I ask the man next to me what he’s looking at. My eyes haven’t adjusted and beyond the trunks of a few trees directly in front of me, the forest is black.
“A grizzly.” He points into the darkness. “Every few minutes he moves and crosses into the headlights.”
I see nothing, not even an outline. But I hear the heavy movement of a large animal. A faint shuffling of leaves, the sharp crack of a small branch. Breathing.
“Right there.” The man points at something only he can see.
“How far into the woods,” I ask.
“About 30 yards. He’s been moving right to left, not forward.” He gestures with his arm. “I’ve been here for about a 15 minutes and he’s only covered about 20 yards. I think he’s in a berry patch.”
“I’m going to move my van. See if I can spot him in the light.” I begin to move the van at a severe angle to the road. Nothing. After several tries, there he is. He momentarily lifts his head and then methodically lowers and returns to eating. By now even the thin line of daylight has disappeared. Framed in the beam of light, the grizzly is little more than an outline against a gathering of shadowed trunks. But he’s there. I can hear his movements. I stood and watched until he moved out of the light and back into the darkness. As I walked back to the van, I could still hear his breathing and the rustling of leaves beneath his feet.