15 August, 1999
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
I am slowly getting closer to Antarctica. I arrived in Bozeman, Montana last night. I came to the Montana State University campus to meet John Pricsu, the Principal Investigator Ill be working with. With a day free to explore before our meeting, I headed for Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to see the boiling hot springs, mud pots, steam vents and geysers. I was enticed there by a line in my guide book that referred to the Norris Geyser Basin as one of the most extreme environments on earth. The McMurdo Dry Valleys where Ill be working have been described in a similar way. The most extreme desert on the planet. Of course, I had to go see.
The Basin called for paying attention. A boardwalk trail was the National Park Sevice's sometimes futile attempt to keep people out of trouble, yet close to the action. The strong odors ranged from the rotten eggs of sulfur, to a cozy Swedish sauna- all moist heat and pungent wood. When I hunkered down on my knees and listened hard, I could hear the crusty surface crackeling with pent up geothermal activity. The earth was whispering there.
I loved the wide expanse of white clay soils, the treachery of the boiling stew of water and arsenic, mercury and lead. The pools were rainbows of pale butter, to pink and turquoise, tinted by heat tolerant cyanobacteria and algae. I came away in awe of these hardy microscopic organisms. Hard to see the individuals, but impressive as a group. Some adapt to living in boiling water, others to a harsh life in the perennially frozen Dry Valley lakes.
Eventually, my Sunday adventure led me to the side of a two lane road near the 45th parallel, midway between the north pole and the equator. I was heading out of the park and stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs. Being a loop-trail afficionado, I took what turned out to be the most indirect route from the top of the trail, down to where I parked my car 300 feet below. The road lazily snaked its way down a steep grade. For all the twists and turns, once I got going it looked like I would be heading a couple of miles in the wrong direction before it curved back towards the parking lot again.
The sun was fast sinking beyond the steaming springs, and I had a twinge of regret that I didnt pick the shorter way. Cars full of tourists shot by and either gave me quizzical looks or asked for directions. I started to really enjoy my hike along the shoulder of the road. At least there was no chance of getting lost. Keep walking, down hill.
I took in all Id missed when I drove up this way from Norris
Basin. Because I was on foot where no one else was, I felt like a "local" for the first time all day. Like a park naturalist doing a biological survey. I had time to identify the plants that had previously been a blur. There was a lot to listen to. The rush of grasses, and twirling of aspen leaves in the breeze. How the wind catches only the tops of the pines yet roars through like a fast-approaching train. Tree frogs and crickets, voices intermingling in two-part harmony. A chorus of dusk.
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of a car gearing down beside me. I kept walking. A gravelly voice called out, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," I replied, still moving. "Im just walking to my car." "Well, let me give you a ride."
"No thanks. Its farther than I thought but Im determined to walk there." The man in the beat up Chevy persisted. I definately didnt want a ride. "Listen to me. LISTEN to me!"
He was more than a bit demanding and I thought he was going to tell me my walking was creating a road hazard. Its true that walking along the park's main "highway" looking at wildflowers didnt seem like something people would ordinarily do here. So as I kept walking I said, Okay. Im listening. I waited for something wise or profound, but what came out was this:
"There are wild animals here and you dont have any mace or anything!" Weird... I assured him Id be fine and as he finally gave up and drove away, I noticed his out-of-state tags from a much tamer southern state. I wondered which wild animals he was referring to- grizzlies? moose? elk? a metaphor for himself? and was relieved when he left me to finish my hike alone.
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