Jan 212010

Caroline Wise at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida in December 1999
Over the course of the previous fifteen years I have been afforded the opportunity to travel to many a destination here in the United States. Matter of fact, I have been to all forty-eight of the continental geographic areas that cartographers charted as signifying individual states. More than states, I have seen the breadth of a country undivided and magnificent in its scope. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, I have traveled the continent bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to its south. I have seen so much of this land that I now have in my mind’s eye a firsthand picture of how the surface of the U.S. changes from the wetlands and everglades of southern Florida up the Atlantic seaboard passing the Nation’s Capital on the way to the rocky and rugged state of Maine. The path from here cuts southwest down the Appalachian Trail leading to the Great Smokey Mountains before I travel to the forests of the southern United States ultimately arriving in the Bayou country of Louisiana. The Great Plains in the center of America stretch from north to south over more than a thousand-five-hundred miles and east to west over more than five-hundred miles. I have stood at the headwaters of the great Mississippi River and crossed its widest points after those waters traveled more than two-thousand miles south to the Gulf of Mexico. I have stood atop the Rocky Mountains, strode through the Bear Tooth Mountain Range, been endeared by the Bitter Root Mountain Range in Idaho, ridden an old steam train from Durango to Silverton in the San Juan Mountains, hiked upon the Sierra Nevada, and stood next to three-thousand year old bristle cone pine trees in the Great Basin. At Cape Flattery in the northwest corner of the state of Washington I have looked out to sea, and remember the thousand miles of Pacific coast to the south that I have traveled. Over one-hundred-seventy National Parks and Monuments have welcomed me as have countless cities and towns across this land.

Caroline Wise posing with flowers on Anacapa Island in the Channel Islands during 2004

But, through all of this, I was never alone. I was never without love. My love of place was always with me, and so was another love. A love that reinforces my love of travel and enhances my appreciation for the journey and the destination. That love is the sustaining connection I have to my best friend, my partner, my wife – Caroline. Twenty-one years in the making we have developed a bond that while probably not unbreakable, is as strong a force of togetherness that one might ever hope to have. A kind of synchronicity has formed between us where we will smile at one another at the same instant as we both become aware that we are witnessing or experiencing a perfect moment. The smile arises knowing that the other is at the same point of awe and we find each other’s eyes for confirmation that things are in fact, just perfect. Our emotions spill into the others senses, Caroline’s tears can easily awaken my own tears to overflowing, her smile just as easily puts my face to beaming. We travel side-by-side, we laugh face-to-face, we nurse each others hurts, we care for another. As we walk along in life, we go hand in hand even when not literally hand-in-hand. As far as I know, we both have the best of intentions for our other half, the half that makes us whole. It is as though this pairing requires four eyes and two minds to make sense of and take the greatest pleasure of this world – our spirits kindly obliging this shared moment of our short existence.

Caroline Wise rescuing a turtle from the road near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland May 2007

I love Caroline in ways spoken of by many a poet or romantic whose words have preceded my own and may have more eloquently captured the essence of love but still I cannot stop myself wanting to let her know in my own words that she means the world to me. From the early years of our relationship, love of intellect and personal interests has matured to a love where I better sense and share her delight and recognize her appreciation for the beautiful. This intimate knowledge of her own connection to life fuels my continuing love for my best friend. It has been more than twenty years since a chance random kiss ignited a chemical chain reaction of olfactory exuberance that threw my senses into a long lasting spell of infatuation. Over the intervening years we have learned more of who each other is and plan to remain interested and involved in who we are becoming. We come to appreciate more of the diversity and abundance that life, culture, and friendship can bring to one’s life. We have endured and continue to stand hand-in-hand.

Caroline Wise leaving Yellowstone National Park January 20, 2010

Through this incredible love, life appears more colorful, more robust, more full of passion. What is mundane or foreign can be embraced because our comfort and friendship has grown accustomed to accepting change. With a world of possibility, our horizons appear boundless, even with the realization that there are limits to time and to all things manifested by our fragile emotions and the uncertainty of physical being. But from a spiritual or soulful perspective, today is a perfect day to be in hopeless, infinite, apparent ceaseless love. Four-eyes, two-minds, and two-smiles dancing through a wondrous life celebrating its rewards and travails.

Jan 202010

Twilight the morning of our departure from Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park January 2010
It’s now 8:30, an hour ago I was outside watching the dawn arrive. The beginning of the day looked promising with some thin clouds stained with a faint magenta and red against a clear sky grabbing the first light. Now we sit in the Map Room here at Mammoth Hot Springs awaiting this minute. The coach has pulled up but we’ll sit here until the last second, until the driver enters the building. The heaviness of leaving weighs down my ability to spring into action and deliver our bags to the curb.

Leaving via the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park January 2010

In five minutes we will pass through the Roosevelt Gate at the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park bringing an end to our physical presence in the park, but Yellowstone is firmly entrenched within us. We leave silently kicking and screaming.

Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A sad goodbye with a tearful but joyous heart breaks with the landscape as we try to drag our little piece of experience we have gleaned from Yellowstone. As we depart we should recognize the efforts that have gone into making this a world-wide loved destination, starting with; John Colter, who first told the stories of this magical place from his visit during the winter of 1807-1808 and inspired others to follow; Nathaniel Pitt Langford who, following the Washburn Expedition of 1870 and his own written experiences of his encounter with Yellowstone, went on to lecture across America and finally lobbied Congress for the legislation to make Yellowstone our first National Park; President Ulysses S. Grant who signed the bill into law that created this National Park on March 1, 1872, the Interior Department, the National Park Service, and all of our tax dollars that work to preserve this corner of America.

On U.S. 89 in Montana driving north out of Yellowstone National Park January 2010

U.S. Route 89 north takes us further away and for the first time in more than a week we are traveling faster than 25 miles per hour. We pass Gardiner, Chico Hot Springs, Emigrant, Pray, and Pine Creek. In Livingston we join Interstate 90 going west. Our destination, the Bozeman Airport is approached in a minute and not a minute later we are unloaded and in the terminal – the convenience of small airports. We were able to grab an earlier flight still leaving enough time for a quick lunch.

Somewhere over the western United States looking down from an airplane flying south in January 2010

Over America. In America. How lucky we are to know this country first hand. During the past twelve months Caroline and I have driven the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, visited Jamestown and Williamsburg. Toured the Whitehouse, Mount Vernon, and Monticello. In Washington D.C. we finally made it to the top of the Washington Monument, we visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, took a tour of the U.S. Capitol and a night time tour of the U.S. Naval Observatory. In New York City over two visits we walked through Central Park, Wall Street, Little Italy, China Town, Greenwich Village, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and went to the top of the Empire State Building – we also stood in the crown of the Statue of Liberty. We rode the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls and a Amish horse drawn buggy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia we visited Constitution Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the home of Edgar Allen Poe. In Baltimore we toured Fort McHenry where the original Stars & Stripes once flew that inspired the Star Spangled Banner. Historic Gettysburg was easy to fall in love with. A year without the Grand Canyon wouldn’t have been a good year. Old Route 66 with a return to Oatman, Arizona and the wild donkeys was great. In California we ate at the Fish Market in San Pedro, on another visit we had fun at Disneyland and caught a movie in Hollywood. The Forth of July was spent riding the Cumbres Toltec Steam Train with one of the best fireworks shows ever right there in Chama, New Mexico. In Florida we strode through the Everglades, kayaked the Keys, and camped on the remote Dry Tortugas. And now Yellowstone. To see and know America one must get out of the clouds, put oneself on the trail and small roads, gaze up to the heights of the mountains, look out on the horizon of the seas, feel the wind blow on the Great Plains, get lost looking into a canyon, and spend time getting to know this land so few take the time to see and experience.

Jan 192010

John Wise pulling Caroline Wise in a sled at Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Finally, fresh snow has made an appearance. Overnight, two to three inches of the wintery cover added to the packed base which has progressively gotten crunchier since our arrival a week ago. The overall weather was not what was expected or forecast, it has been warmer and sunnier than we had imagined and the park employees would wish for. After all, it is winter in Yellowstone and at this time of year everything and everyone operates on the snow, not grass and asphalt. Today is our last day in the park.

The Firehole River looking west on the Upper Geyser Basin just north of Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

We are not in a hurry to do much of anything. With the new snow we would have needed snowshoes to take the trail past Morning Glory pool to Gem pool and Pinto spring where last year we were amazed with bands of icey ribbons Caroline referred to as “ice bacon”. So, with Yaktrax stretched onto our boots we march out around Old Faithful to the bridge crossing the Firehole River.

Bison laying where they bedded down for the night on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Turned out that had we been carrying the snowshoes with us, they wouldn’t have been put to much use anyway as we got stuck behind the same herd of bison we had been watching yesterday. It was near Infant Geyser that we stopped to watch and photograph the snow covered bison who were just beginning to move from their slumber. As they started to stir this early morning they moved directly towards our trail and then up and over the boardwalk, stopping us in our tracks.

A snowy bison looking for a feeding spot on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

No matter, watching this small herd lazily stand up, stretch, shake off sleep and snow, while others raised tails for a morning salute is immensely entertaining. We greatly appreciate our close encounter with these furry, brown bison. As more of the herd disperses from the close knit sleeping grounds some are heading for the edge of the forest, others are walking over the boardwalk and a few more pass over a hot spring, pausing to warm themselves in the steam washing over their thick coats and up large dark nostrils.

Bison foraging for food on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A bison walks out few steps from the group and presses her head through the snow, swinging from side to side, making a clearing to look for still edible grass in her effort to break the fast. With snow less than a foot deep her foraging attempt isn’t quite as impressive as the large male we had seen on the Lonestar Geyser trail last year as he stood in snow reaching up to the bottom of his chin, his head disappearing in the deep powder on his hunt for food.

Snow dusted bison walking over the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Stragglers slowly rise from their snowy beds and bear down on us, as we smartly back away. This is going to take a while. A park ranger who emerged from the forest near the boardwalk warns a man on the other side of the herd that he is too close and to move away. Three or four steps was not adequate and the ranger admonishes him to move further. The wait continues.

Doublet Pool on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

We have some hours to go before our snowcoach arrives to spirit us back to Mammoth Hot Springs, turning around now would put us back at the hotel with little to do. We wait. Not that bison are not fascinating to watch, but after watching them awaken, shake, have a morning constitution, eat, meander, stand around, and indulge in a steam bath, we start to get antsy and want to walk about too. The quiet Doublet Pool deserves being gawked at, we oblige.

Close-up detail of Doublet Pool on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

The thumping and pulsing we heard and felt yesterday is not returning to Doublet. Waiting behind the bison we have ample opportunity to trace the outline of the pool and note the colors. Some other people join us at the bison jam, their patience not nearly as strong as ours; after ten or fifteen minutes they turn and go back. We look at bison, look at Doublet, back to bison, back to the pool, look at the steam, look at bison, and so our routine plays out. As a light snow begins to fall the sun at the same time is off again, on again trying to peek through clouds.

An injured bison looking into the camera on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

The last bison to get moving was a smaller one. Not a calf but maybe a juvenile, then again it may have been a smaller animal due to its serious injury. Its right front leg was broken, the hoof dangling just above the surface of land and snow below it. This tenacious bison stumbled over to join herd, not able to put an ounce of weight on the damaged leg. She would move two or three steps, collect herself and eek out a few more painful limping steps to move closer to the group that must be her family. Time paused while this poor creature inched along.

The Lion Group on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Finally a break and we make tracks, down onto the segment of boardwalk that enters the edge of the forest alongside the Firehole River. We didn’t get far before we are startled by a bison hidden behind a tree, just feet from the trail. For the next fifteen minutes we wait patiently, but this bison seems to have found some tasty morsels and is content to linger. We are not and begin to cut a path into the forest on the other side of the trail through knee deep snow, over and around fallen trees. At the point we are about to cut left the bison starts to move towards the river, letting us backtrack through our steps and continue our way north on the boardwalk.

Sawmill Geyser erupting on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Some of the trees are frosty, some have a new coating of snow that hasn’t yet blown off. The diamond dust we saw here last year was not to be found here this time We walk on, looking at nothing in particular and everything all at the same time. Northward we go with the umpteenth stop at Sawmill Geyser to watch it erupting. Refusing to stand here an hour snapping another thousand photos we satisfy ourselves with just a few minutes of ogling.

Close-up detail of the emtpy pool at Spasmodic Geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Spasmodic is quiet again today. That does not imply anything less than amazing though. The ever changing dynamic landscape of evolving art is like a constant transitioning painting being created for the observer instant by instant with flairs of water and steam rippling forward only to be drawn away revealing the canvas which itself is only another layer upon a deeper canvas. The entire panorama is alive, contorted and brilliant under a radiant sun, mysterious and elusive under a gray sky. Superficially I may have understood the idea that Yellowstone will never appear the same between two visits, but it wasn’t until this visit that I truly began to appreciate how to discern that these differences can be observed from day to day, hour to hour, even minute to minute. How long does it take for us to see that Old Faithful is more than a geyser of water shooting into the sky on a somewhat predictable schedule, how long does it take a man or woman to see more than the pool of water or the color of rock? Why are we so easily overwhelmed by the new and so slow to find reflection and appreciate unknown qualities that may lie just before us?

The empty pool of Oval Spring on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Here is the empty Oval Spring with light puffs of steam rising from below, would you stop to have a closer inspection? While erupting hissing thermal features surround you, does a gray, brown, and tan seemingly lifeless crater warrant your attention? What if this hole-in-the-ground was full of rapturous aqua waters frothing and gurgling with belching gasses, creating a column of water splaying the surroundings? Anyone would likely stop then, but I have to now. I want to understand how this drab vent has all the splendor to have been included in the magnificent display here in Yellowstone.

Close-up detail inside Oval Spring on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Up close, through the steam, deep in the crater a wall of damp bulbous rock growths are glistening, moistened by the steam and the occasional spurting water. Looking at the details of this spring, my eyes start to reveal the beauty that my impatience might have ignored otherwise. From the boardwalk we are only offered a limited vantage point from which to capture the essence of the thing we would like to experience, the compromise a necessity brought on by humankind’s desire to destroy through carelessness or the collection of a souvenir or memento to take home. And still, with the knowledge of how this can bring ruin upon the world and its beauty around us, there are those who will throw coins, sticks, or other debris into these “things” that have taken hundreds of our lifespans to create and only the flick of a wrist to stop the rest of us from enjoying.

Bare roots of a tree partially covered in snow on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

On another side of the boardwalk a tree with snow covered gnarled bare roots plays second fiddle to the surrounding beauty. The patterns on display in nature’s museum shames the greatest of man’s museums and yet only a fraction of the number of visitors will ever visit a national park in comparison to how many people will pay a visit to a climate controlled building featuring the works of man and woman. Eight and a half million people will pass the Mona Lisa this year, I may be the only soul to recognize this root and find the art inherent in what Mother Nature has created for our delight.

Looking into Belgian Pool on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Yesterday the colors of Belgian Pool were vibrant, today they are muted under a gray sky. Without the sun to dance across its surface and illuminate the steam, stillness prevails, letting me see more. Sure, the colors of the pool in the sun are a spectacle we all desire to have captured in our photographs of this terrific place, but it is alone in this quiet, under a calm overcast sky that contemplation and the attention to detail is allowed to mount. From the angle I stood yesterday the pool didn’t seem that deep, today I find intrigue not knowing to what depths this darkening blue center might descend.

Detail of bacteria mat on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

What is this? One thing is certain, we are looking at the surface below water of a either a geyser, a bacteria mat, or the edge of a hot spring. My memory fails me as to where precisely I was standing and what in particular was I looking at. Entranced maybe, I must have found this small detail just off the boardwalk and while down on hands and knees I became acquainted with this landscape of jutting mountains, deep crevasses, and precipitous cliffs.

Green plants next to red dormant grasses on a hot spring on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Winter, even amongst the freezing air and snow covered earth, can be an illusion. Here, next to the seasonally dormant grasses, green fresh life clings to the edge of warmth and light in a bid to deny winter its grip on the environment. These contrasts in survival must be a part of that wonderment that propelled those early visitors from the Eastern United States to recognize the importance of such a place and then to toil in their efforts to help create the world’s first National Park.

Daisy Geyser erupting in the distance on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Thar she blows! Daisy is a spoutin’, gone and blown her top. Two days ago we waited patiently, if waiting fifteen minutes could be considered patient, for Daisy to erupt – we moved on. From afar today we look west to see the geyser going full steam ahead. Even if we were to put our butts into run-for-it mode right now, we would not arrive geyser side for an up close view of Daisy’s majesty and so we pause to enjoy it from where we stand.

A coyote on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

We race by Grotto, nature is summoning Caroline to take care of business. Also racing by is a coyote. The lucky coyote only need raise a leg or squat with nary a care as to who might be witnessing this necessity, then again, lucky coyote doesn’t require doffing of four layers of protective clothing to expose the essentials required for finding relief. In an instant the coyote was out of view going in the same direction we were traveling, maybe our paths may cross again.

Trees, snow, water, and steam next to the boardwalk on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Steam and grass, water and snow, ice and mud, hoof prints and bird calls, all of this in one place. I want to return in spring, in summer, in fall, I want to be here every day to see how it all changes. I need to capture the rising and descending water, the turning of plants from brown to green, the migration of birds, the explosion of colors and their subsequent fading to prove to everyone that the earth is indeed alive and is a master of creation, architecture, and building greater than the all of the combined efforts of us puny little people. Where has our sense of awe gone that our daily actions don’t reflect our compassion for preserving a planet that gives us all that we so irresponsibly take from it without offering every concession possible to allow it to remain healthy and intact?

Caroline Wise and John Wise in front of Morning Glory Pool on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

It’s 11:47, tea time. Once again we are at Morning Glory and as it has been on other visits, this is the turnaround point and in effect, the end of our visit to Yellowstone. From here we begin our goodbyes. We are no longer traveling into, but away from. We raise our cup of hot tea and toast Yellowstone. A little bit of sun pokes through as wind whips snow from the trees. Words fail to describe the immensity and totality of the experience once one has been immersed in Yellowstone for a goodly period of time. The landscape and its components become a singular whole with each individual element being an obvious part of a larger body. Only because we are so tiny ourselves are we able to witness the finery and details we look at and pretend to understand. Each part is like a cell that, when grouped together, forms an organ, but looking from afar at the individual element can we understand its role? The organ that is Yellowstone is too complex, too large to come to an appreciable understanding of just what it is and how its myriad pieces fit together in a week, a month, or a year. That this park delivers such extraordinary experiences is part of the draw that brings those of us back who have been here before. We become two more pieces of the puzzle, with a sense that our small part must be filled and for a short time we too can and must be a part of Yellowstone.

Section of Riverside Geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

We deviate from the trail returning us to the Snow Lodge, veering onto Riverside Drive. A pool is overflowing, spilling into the Firehole river. This pool is bubbling with a few small eruptions only reaching heights of six or seven inches but these are signs that Riverside Geyser is likely to erupt within the next 90 minutes. Yet nearly a half hour passes and the activity, while not constant, remains as it was, never becoming a full eruption. With less than an hour before check-in for our snowcoach it is now time to beat feet.

Grotto Geyser erupting on a snowy sunny moment on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Just because we are leaving doesn’t mean we don’t have time to enjoy a sight or two. Earlier we had skipped by Grotto, now as we are walking by some sun and blue sky bring cheer to these moments we attempt to draw out of the sadness of the end of an incredible trip. Someone might ask, why don’t you make an effort to spend more time here, to work here, to live within the borders of Yellowstone? Is there a job title describing one who sits and stares at nature for months and years on end who is not an accomplished author or photographer? Is it even possible to write tomes on a mind ascending beauty with no regard for a thread of story besides the journey of recognition of the aesthetics of the natural world?

Warm water and snow on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Wouldn’t you know it – another bison jam. Our herd from up the hill moved its way west and are presently crossing the bicycle path, our only short distance and expedient path to the Snow Lodge. Backtracking to cut a return passing Beehive Geyser might make us late. We need a lifesaver. And it is delivered by a Matt-Track vehicle whose approach scurries the bison forward while part of the herd is yet to jump over stream to cross the bicycle path – we break for it, oh no, so is a bison, we run, it lumbers, but it’s big and heavy so we allow fear to propel us out of its way. Out of wind and out of harms way we are soon in front of the shuttered Old Faithful Inn, its big red door closed for the season. Its presence is ghostly with the echoes of summer and the shadow of crowds in the foyer spilling out of the sealed namesake of the geyser it was build next to. Walking by I can’t help but see Jack Nicholson opening the doors inviting us in for a private winter tour.

Clepsydra Geyser erupting in the afternoon on the Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

And it’s done. Our bags are are about to be loaded on the Prinoth and we on a snowcoach bound for Mammoth. Dipper Darla will be our driver and guide for the four hour fifty mile ride north. Passing Black Sand Basin, Biscuit, and Midway Basin with its Grand Prismatic until we reach the Lower Geyser Basin Thermal area, the Fountain Group to be precise, also known as the Fountain Paint Pots. A thirty minute speed tour over the boardwalk feels like a fifteen minute blur. We barely have a minute to appreciate Clepsydra Geyser, the geyser that never stops erupting – almost never.

Mud pots at Fountain Paint Pots on the Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A peek into the mud pots and Silex Spring and Darla gets us to pile back into the snowcoach. Twenty minutes later we take a short break at Madison Junction. Unceremoniously we dart past Norris Geyser Basin, Roaring Mountain, Obsidian Cliff, and more until we reach Swan Lake Flat in the dark. We did stop momentarily on the way for a sighting of a bald eagle, we pulled over, slowing down as we passed Gibbon Falls, but we did stop a few times to spot Dippers. The American Dipper is a small dark gray aquatic bird that survives Yellowstone’s harsh winter by diving and feeding in the rich warm waters of the Yellowstone river system. Darla loves these birds so much she has been christened Dipper Darla.

Silex Spring on the Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Bunsen and Electric Peaks are not to be seen in the dark. We pass golden gate knowing so only because we are told. In front of the Mammoth Hotel we stretch tired limbs and hobble to our room to deposit our bags before stuffing ourselves at the Mammoth Dining Room. What we ate wasn’t spectacular, it hardly registers, but the dessert of Apple Gallete ala Mode could be considered a primary factor in returning. For all I know this sweet treat is a frozen toaster pasty but after a long cold day it does fill a certain spot. [The photo above is Silex Spring.]

The blurred and spotted view out the window of a snowcoach in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A short break before collecting the key to the hot tub for an hour long basking in steaming waters topped with cold night air. We look skyward at the stars while a light snow is blowing in from where, we do not know. Music plays softly in the background, drifting in from the adjacent ice skating rink. The barren trees overhead and behind are illuminated by the lights of the ice rink, the hot tub light is blue, a clock in the window of the cabin reminds us of the time. All too soon the spa, the sight of the stars over Yellowstone, the smell of sulfur from the springs, geysers, and fumaroles, and our week long vacation here will all come to an end for us and will probably be just getting started for someone else. We are finished packing and ready for sleep. In the morning we will have breakfast and await H.A. Moore’s return to ferry us back to the Bozeman Airport. [The photo above is out the window of the snowcoach, you see, it pays to leave your vehicle and explore this world around you.]

Jan 182010

Closeup photo of the texture of bark on a tree in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

My mind is quiet, thoughts are distant. Today is a day to observe the world around me with an uncritical but still curious eye. Six days was what it took before I could fall into and become part of the scenery of Yellowstone. The previous days were spent collecting – collecting the sights, sounds, and smells of the park with a mind racing to have it all. Today we are here alone; although the drone of the snowmobiles is a three-hour background noise in the distance: on the trail we are the only humans.

Moss growing on a tree branch in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A rough trail going to Mallard Lake takes us to an infrequently visited hot spring and mud pots in the forest. We are in no hurry and take time to listen and watch. The squirrels are signaling to one another that we have arrived with a raucous chatter of squeals between tree tops that we had at first thought were bird sounds. We have looked at the features of the major geyser basins a dozen times before and are making an effort today to see what we have not seen before. Tree bark, sap, moss, lichen, and hoar frost all demand a closer inspection.

Moss growing from a tree branch in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

We are standing in the forest like a tree rooted to the soil, little is moving, it is still and quiet, besides the breeze that ruffles some branches overhead. The rustle of our synthetic layer of clothes brushing against pant legs and arms adds a sound of plastic friction not belonging to this natural space. We try not to move or be seen so that nature might return to its routine that the intruders are disturbing. I want to experience this place and moment in which artifice has no place.

Closeup of crystallized sap over barkless wood on a tree in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A nearby tree, now a well worn scratch post for elk, stands with one side stripped of bark. During the summer it appears to have become a favorite of male elk in need of shedding the velvet that covers their maturing antlers. In an effort to try to protect itself, the raw blond wood of the tree has sent out sap which has crystallized into a second skin. We stop to stick a finger into nature, to poke the piney sap and delight in its sweet smell. With great affection we inspect the granularity of exposed wood and believe we could stay here all day staring at the minutiae.

Closeup of an open pine cone still attached to the pine tree it grew from in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Inching along the trail going up the hill we pass our turn. There seems to be a pull to see what’s just over the next rise, and as one would expect, it’s another hill. From time to time a light snow flurry dances through the frigid air, we wonder if it’s a prelude to something greater. It isn’t and won’t be. The crunch of dry frozen and packed snow underfoot crunches in rhythm to our gait like a metronome keeping the beat. It is a rhythmic sound not fitting the random natural soundscape playing in these woods. We must stop to allow the natural order to take back charge.

Closeup of a small fallen branch with orange fungus growing on it in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

After backtracking to our ill-defined turn the haphazard trail leads us over fallen limbs. A jump across a small stream as we try to avoid the deeper bison hoof holes that puncture the snow to the ground below. Massive plops of bison poo are skirted, then finally we are delivered to our reward. An unnamed hot spring and mud pots in a small clearing. The is no boardwalk and no fence, besides the self imposed fence of common sense that demands we leave the area as we find it so other will have the same opportunity to see and define what this sight means to them.

A bubble of mud about to pop at an unnamed mud pot on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Gas is hissing as it escapes earth’s grasp, maybe it is angry for being held so long. Caroline squats down to record the sound of heavy mud bubbling up with a thick sound of slowness. The rolling brown sludge pops and a new layer is stacked on an older one before they spread out to begin their sink back into the depths from where they emerged. Some mud is so thin as to be considered more water than mud – its boil has the more familiar sound we oft hear on our stoves as the pot comes to a boil. The steaming hot spring behind the mud pot breaks its silence to let gas rise from its center bringing to mind a giant cauldron of a mysterious emerald potion.

Hoar frost standing in the soil at an unnamed hot spring on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Hoar frost appears to crawl from the depths below, rising from the loose gravely soil. Tendril like ice sticks latch on to invisible air supports as these shoestring clumps of fragile sculptures have grown from the frozen surface defying my imagination as to what this process must look like as the ice sprouts and aims upward. Youtube does not come to the rescue this time to show me a time-lapse of how this plays out.

Five bison in the snow near the Observation Trail on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Back down the trail and over a small bridge crossing the Firehole river where earlier we had spotted a few bison in the distance – they are gone. These lumbering creatures haven’t moved far though and it is we hope, in our good fortune that they are moving in the same direction we are. We cross over the Firehole on the bridge near Old Faithful and turn right on the Observation Trail hoping the bison are coming this way. Either they are moving faster than we thought or the herd is larger than we considered.. The latter is true, we count twenty-six bison. For close to a half hour we stand next to a large boulder trying to blend in, watching the bison gracefully sway their had back and forth, foraging for buried grasses under the snow. One heads up the hill, three meander down hill, two more eyeball us on the trail as if they are as nervous of our presence as we of theirs. We oblige the bison and return to the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk. As we try to keep a safe distance with three bison on our left, a couple are approaching from dead ahead, while a few who had been down the hill start climbing – we are being encircled. Hastily we aim for our one escape, on the very icy boardwalk passing Beehive geyser. By now we have watched this herd for more than an hour feeling like half a day has passed.

A small eruption at the Lion Group on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

It’s gray, overcast, and a cold light wind is starting to bite. The bison are forcing us to head towards the western bridge over the Firehole near Castle Geyser. We walk along slowly, occasionally looking over our shoulders to ensure enough space remains between us and the bison who are blocking the south bridge. The Lion Group of thermal features are letting off a little steam and kicking up some low grade eruptions that take our thoughts from the cold and the marauding herd behind us.

Edge detail of Heart Spring on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Once again at Heart Spring and its beauty is not in short supply. A limestone lip looks to be floating on the water surface with its fractal edges rolling on forever in imperceptible crystalline structures that grow larger every day. Under the dull light of today everything but the shape of Heart Spring looks different. The bacteria mat may not be as vibrant, but it looks altogether like something else, as though the pigments of the life forms are light aware and change for the occasion.

Stone detail and rust looking edges of a small geyser cone on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Be careful looking here, in places where, just the moment before, you thought you had seen all there was to be observed, upon looking again you will spot that special treasure you could have sworn wasn’t there a second before. I know for fact I walked past this unnamed rusty cone yesterday, not having noted precisely where this photo was taken. It could in fact be part of a named group but now, looking at the image, I cannot say from precisely where it came. When I was on the boardwalk and this caught my eye, it looked brand new to me. I had simply gone by previously, without giving it a second thought – could I have been so callous? Am I guilty too, of seeing the big picture and maybe on more than one occasion have missed seeing the smaller detail?

Detail of curves and wood grain of a twisted tree limb on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

I strain to see more. I cannot say with any certainty if and when I will have the opportunity to walk the land of the worlds first national park again. I want to remember every detail, every corner, every bend. The forms and shapes, the contrasting colors, textures and sounds are too much for my conscious mind; my only hope is that I might displace memories of useless television shows and overwrite them with truly valuable images. I plead with my subconscious mind to record every bit of information so that my future dreams will walk through billowy steam, gaze upon Kodachrome colored landscapes, and inspect the granularity of the wood texture in that old tree.

Moss growing next to a small geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

A favor to ask of the Park Service: oh, grant me the occasion to stroll unencumbered by the rules, let me crawl down upon the earth to find intimacy with the grains of sand. I need to tease out the details of individual leaves in the moss to witness first hand these multicelled rhizoids. Yes, Wikipedia and technology do have a place for us (within reason) to better understand the natural world around us. My day today has been obsessed with fine detail, my future visits will hopefully take me into the atomic and molecular structure of this place until one day I may observe Yellowstone from space, maybe then I may feel that I have seen a little something of this park.

Closeup detail of an overhang on a small unnamed geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Just to the right of the moss is a boiling cauldron. Clear water rises and thrashes about and it could be that action of fury that grabs your attention but just above the surface of the churn is this stone relic, reminding me of the fossilized head of some ancient and extinct creature that roamed this land so many millions of years ago. I can still see the leathery texture of its petrified skin, its lower jaw now missing. What you are really looking at are the deposits of minerals that have been shaped, formed, broken, and worn by the forces of nature. Not being a geologist I cannot tell you if this is still growing or if its eroding, or both. I can wonder whether the steam might carry enough minerals that could be bonding to this outcropping and it is the wonder of my imagination that propels me to want to know more, to come back, to learn more than my simple mind allows me to appreciate from making observations.

Closeup of boiling water in an unnamed small geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

And below, the water. Rising up from the earth. Tracing a path through the plumbing from the depths until maybe a thousand years, maybe a million years later, it returns to the surface. Some of it, escaping as gas will join clouds above and travel another thousand miles before it condenses and falls as rain on the heads of pedestrians out for a stroll on the streets of New York. As the water erupts, some will splash over the rim to collect in a pool before flowing off to join the Firehole river. When those waters join yet another river, will they, years from now, be found in a glass of lemonade about to be drunk on a hot summer day? Steam and overflowing water will feed the moss around the edges – will a passing animal nourish itself on green lunch fed by these waters? Will some of this water fall back into the earth, hidden deep below for another millennium until someone else with an inquisitive mind looks into these depths and wonders if anyone else has ever seen just this water?

Closeup detail of erupting Castle Geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Sawmill Geyser is about to draw us in once again when Caroline notices Castle Geyser is erupting. The Castle is roaring, spitting, fuming. Hysterical, expulsive fits of swirling steam, gas, and water are thrusting skyward. Out of the steam, sheets of rain fall quickly from the fast rising clouds. The erupting water ceases and the gas and steam take on a new vitriol, cursing the earth below for holding it prisoner. The water, now jealous, rejoins the free-for-all in an attempt to steal the show by reaching for the heavens, until both seemingly exhausted begin to fade, but it was a fools bet that things were over. Springing back to life, the entire process continues.

The rising steam of the erupting Castle Geyser against a late afternoon sky on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

For over a half hour we sit, stand, and walk around the display. We wonder how those who stopped by for a few minutes were able to pull themselves away as we wait in delight that we should be so lucky to be here to watch the entirety of an eruption cycle of Castle Geyser. As the glow of twilight is getting ready to give way to the approaching night, the Castle calms its rebellion and returns to silence and we to the Snow Lodge.

Jan 172010

The sun rising behind Old Faithful Inn on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

What a day, all day. Caroline and I met 21 years ago and on this anniversary day Caroline became a Junior Ranger – another reason going forward to celebrate January 17. And, we enjoyed two tours this day, one to the Firehole Basin in the afternoon, and, later in the evening, we ventured into the dark on the Stars & Steam tour. It all got started leaving our cabin at Snow Lodge just before sunrise. From beginning to end we had, you guessed it, a perfect day.

Low morning sun obscured by the rising steam of Castle Geyser on the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Beelining towards the bicycle path we stopped briefly to tip a nod to the end of an eruption of Old Faithful. The closed Old Faithful Inn stands silent and majestic; fond are our memories of room #225 where we have put our heads to rest on more than one visit to our most favorite hotel on earth. On the bicycle path we are soon to turn left towards Daisy Geyser, but take a minute to stop and admire Castle Geyser with the rising sun directly behind the geyser cone and steam. Our pace is quick with less than three hours to hike out to Black Sand Basin and back before grabbing a bite for lunch and joining our first guided tour at 12:45.

Bobby Socks trees on Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Racing towards Daisy, we noticed some geyser activity. We waited fifteen minutes for an eruption since all the conditions looked ripe, but it wasn’t budging – so we did. Up the boardwalk for a quick peek at Punch Bowl Spring, still as beautiful as ever. In the snow with our Yaktrax on it took nearly an hour to trek the mile and half to our destination. While this chicken crossed the road to Black Sand Basin, Caroline stayed over in the deeper snow to perform her first Junior Ranger task, measuring the temperature of snow at various depths. The air temperature was toasty in the low 40’s, the top of the snow was in the mid 20’s, and near the ground it was near 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It now makes sense why a small animal would be closer to the ground in an effort to remain warm.

Close-up view of a Bobby Sock tree and the thermophilic surface surrounding it on the Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Waiting for my future Junior Ranger I have some time to stand here at Opalescent Pool and admire the bobby sock trees. These white ankled, someday likely to be petrified, trees are attention arrestors. Prior to the 1950’s visitors would have seen healthy green lodge pole pine trees growing here. The pools surrounding these trees dried for a while, only to later see the area flooded with waters from nearby Sprouter Geyser delivering the silica that transformed these wooden monuments that are turning to stone. The surrounding bacteria mats are a rainbow of thermophilic growth, the various organisms adapted to life on the fringe of hostility and surviving in extremely hot waters – each with distinct colors that can almost be read as a thermometer with certain colored bacteria thriving in hotter waters and others requiring cooler but still warm water.

Emerald Pool on a wintery day on the Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

It was near here at Emerald Pool on the Black Sand Basin a year and a day ago that I experienced one of those rare epiphanies that have the power to alter our sense of perception. Standing on the boardwalk, two eagles were flying overhead as Caroline and I were sharing a cup of tea from our thermos. The day was significantly colder but we were enjoying a similar blue sky as we are today, when it struck me. Bill Gates with billions of dollars could not enjoy this moment any more than I could, all of his money could not buy more wow and awe. A wealthy man cannot buy or own a corner of our National Park for his personal exclusive view and entertainment. No matter how rich or poor, we all have the opportunity to see this world around us with the most extraordinary nature and wildlife than could possibly be created by man in a thousand lifetimes. Back then, like now, the Black Sand Basin was all ours. Not another soul far and wide. Today I am rich beyond belief once more.

Hot spring water reflecting the sun at Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

My kingly idea reflects in my memories, once more I am allowed to covet this corner of all that I see. But this is more than a single image and a solitary sense. There is a totality of environmental experience that enwraps you, that makes this real. Eyes squint against the bright sun reflecting off water and snow. The cold turns the ends of our sniffling noses red and mandates us to cover our warm parts that have found the chill wind. Water laps at the thin shore with tiny ripples as dainty unseen birds chirp in the trees around us. Snow crunches under foot as leaves and twigs bristle with the disturbance from a bird, small animal, or wind, of which in particular we do not know. Gas escaping a fumarole hisses, sending us a gift that stimulates our sense of smell. A foot slips on the ice, a magpie flutters to a wobbly landing, while sun rays are reflected in rising steam that momentarily warms our exposed frosty faces. We stand here on the edge of our knowledge in an endeavor to comprehend the magnitude and depth of what on the surface looks so simple, giving these extraordinary moments adequate time to find meaning and become memories that will fatten our wallet of experience.

Ghost grasses are created when rising steam freezes on the grass it floats over - Black Sand Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

In some ways our life is much like the frost, grass, and water we are staring at. From our fast moving lives (the water), steam (our imagination) clings to this stream-side brown dormant grass (our routine) in the form of ice (our thoughts). A slight warming of the air (maturity) and the ice will will fall back to the water, some will evaporate, and some will nourish the grass. Spring will return to find the steam free of the grass but still feeding the air, the grass will be green again, the air warmer, and the stream will have moved on. Another season and the cycle will repeat until the grass dies off and the water takes a different path.

Green algae and yellow bacteria with an unknow crust of white at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Just below the surface of the water a complex community of competing interests is vying for all that it can take from its environment to ensure survival. Green against yellow and a intruding white growth attacking from above, some complain about the cold and others the rising temperatures. The water and the inner workings of the earth below are the ultimate arbiters as the rolling dice of time tumble forward influencing the chances of who or what will be a winner. But beyond this feud between green and yellow, and the occasional intrusions of white, what if it were all for nothing? If the forces of the volcano below, which is indiscriminate, were to unleash its wrath and vaporize all above it that was, would green and yellow maybe have wished to have taken another moment to enjoy the gaze of those who marveled at the beauty represented by the contrasting colors?

Various thermal features at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

We shortcut up the road, grab a quick lunch, find our driver and are soon underway on the Firehole Basin tour we scheduled. First stop is Biscuit Basin on the Grand Loop. The place is overrun. Too many snowmobiles, too many in the herd of man, some sleepy bison off the boardwalk. We try not to see too much as we quickly hoof it over the ice to loop the Basin; we were supposed to hike out here the next morning and don’t want to spoil ourselves with seeing it all at once. Anyway, we are too excited about what comes next.

Excelsior Geyser during winter at Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Midway Geyser Basin. With new found excitement we are transformed into children awaiting Christmas day. The sky is blue and we are going to visit Grand Prismatic Hot Spring. First we must pass the gatekeeper, Excelsior Geyser. In the cold of winter we would have never guessed that we might see more of Excelsior pool than at any other time we have visited. A curtain of ice stands as a backdrop to the geyser whose four thousand gallons-a-minute waters spill out the crater to cascade downhill into the Firehole river we just crossed. The sight of the stained and rutted hillside, steaming rushing waters, and the dark blue river of the Firehole running alongside this geyser basin framed in snow covered trees and meadows would be enough to satisfy even the weakest of imaginations, but we know there is more.

Steam rising from Grand Prismatic Spring with the sun in the background at Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Off in the distance, hidden behind its shroud of steam is the massive spring of all springs – Grand Prismatic. Our approach is slow and deliberate. The universe orbiting the colorful giant is immense and deserving in its own right to be taken in with quiet deliberation. On the left we are circling Excelsior captivated by the clear boiling waters below and the frozen waterfalls grasping fast to the cliff side wall of what was once the world’s largest geyser. On the right, tufts of snow cut by hot waters act as islands in a shallow sea of runoff that issues forth from Grand Prismatic Spring.

Near the edge of the steam obscured Grand Prismatic Spring with brown and red thermophilic mat in the foreground on the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Here we are, in the shadow of greatness. It matters not one bit that its cache of colors is muted by the afternoon sun and a veil of steam, we know precisely what lies just beyond our view. Hints of its majesty are seen everywhere. Cracked earth, etched surfaces, reflective, still waters mirror the sun that has found a gap in the cloak of obscurity. Just beyond is a pool of cerulean blue surrounded by the full spectrum of green rung by a terrace of graduating yellow and orange before reaching shades of red cooling to browns. Grand Prismatic is a stunning sight, indeed. If you should be here on a day when all you witness is a screen of steam hiding its stunning beauty, you must return time and again until the day it seers in grandeur into your minds eye. Then, on subsequent visits you too may revel at what lies above on the hillside with the power to draw out that inner child anticipating a greatness unimaginable to a fresh young mind.

Grand Prismatic Spring with reflective water foreground and sun overhead on winter day at Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Around the bend, another perspective. Trying to glean a peek below and in between, we hunger for that glimpse of the profound. Still we tingle with delight at the chance to be here. The sky is almost azure with a few wispy clouds on the horizon and overhead, making for a dramatic canopy complementing the scene below. I am reminded of the Navajo Blessing Way as we walk in beauty, with beauty before us, beauty behind us, beauty above us, and beauty below.

Water from Grand Prismatic Spring flowing towards Excelsior Geyser on the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Turn around, look above, look down, look side to side, is there anywhere less amazing than the inch of visible presence occupying the space next to the inch that is its neighbor? Is this not a giant interconnectedness that is binding everything within its hold from above and below into one immense spectacle of beauty? And if all that surrounds one is of this exceptional glorious radiance that comes together to create the whole and you should be the one in the center of it all, then are you not too an integral facet that defines the landscape? Are you and your inherent ability to be and to see, to sense, and to learn, to exist within the kaleidoscope of unfolding resplendence not just as important an element of nature that life has offered you a role in?

Turquoise Pool framed in snow on the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Turquoise Pool is the last thermal feature we gaze upon during our stop here at Midway Geyser Basin. I am content. I do not have a care of what else we should do with the rest of the day; I am satisfied. I am floating on the high of having been there, done that. There are places within Yellowstone that will brand an awareness in you that reawakens when you are bestowed with a subsequent visit, where when you look at the sum of the parts you know you are looking at perfection, this basin is one such place for me.

Caroline Wise searching for a good view from the open hatch of one of the historic yellow Bombardier snow coaches on the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

From whence we came it matters no more than where we may go. Seek to find us a worthy location so I may explore further the machinations of a mind rebelling against the merely superficial on my quest to languish on the state of modernity. Roll over to crush and assist the slow death of my love for the cities I have grown musty in. The yoke of conformity becomes a noose, a blindfold, and a shackle. Cannot the masses see their freedom has all the range of their remote control? Then again, I can count my blessing that the situation is as it is, for would I, could I, truly appreciate this vehicle about to deliver us to our next stop if it were seating one-hundred and I were to be joined by throngs of even like minded thinkers? And would I still enjoy the moment if there were forty, fifty, or sixty such coaches lined up parking here as five or six thousand like minded souls went exploring the boardwalks of the Midway Geyser Basin seeking their own form of enlightenment?

Thermophilic bacteria mat at Fountain Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

How many forms of the unknown exist in this diverse corner of Wyoming? How many hours, days, weeks, or lifetimes must be spent looking into the corners and below the surface of things before one begins to feel a sense of knowing the infinite this place may hold? My eyes six feet above the surface see mottled yellow and white blobby stuff next to the boardwalk. On hands and knees I’m looking at buttery slime frosting bubbling over coral reef like growths of bone marrow slathered with plaque, draining an infected sore next to ripe pimples ready to erupt. And yes, I do find this thermophilic bed just as lyrical and beautiful as the full symphony of landscape that is performing all around me.

Mud pots on the Fountain Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

It’s the beach kids, run for the water. Wait, this isn’t a pool, a sea, or a lake, it’s a transformative mud bath. Who knew this resort had a deluxe outdoor spa? I think I’ll make myself cozy by this heat cone where I can mist my face prior to the attendant slathering me with healing mud and wrapping my tired bones in hand made organic mineral laden bison wool woven sheets. Ahh, the good life. Music, sunshine, and the beach all in one place. Am I living or what?

Boiling white and red tinged mud at the Fountain Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Suppose I should mention that we have been delivered by the Yellow Bombardier to Fountain Paint Pots on the Lower Geyser Basin. Turn your head and listen, no matter the direction, everywhere is sound. Maybe more than any other basin, the Fountain Paint Pots is a loud, boiling, cauldron of roiling charm. Like the famous advertising campaign that accompanied a particular potato chip that bet you couldn’t eat just one, I dare you to only watch one bubble of mud pop with a resounding ‘bloop’. One bloop leads to another, soon you have a concert of bloopage happening and your toe starts a tapping. Have I forgotten to mention the hypnotizing concentric patterns that roll out of the boiling mud that have the ability to trap you with their wicked powers of entrancement?

Boiling muddy red waters at Fountain Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Forget the boiling mud, say hello to boiling, milky red water. I know, by now you must be asking, “Is any of this stuff real or are these outtake stills from early development renderings of the planet Pandora from James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar?” Sorry, mate, this is 100% pure all-natural, unrefined, non-GMO, trans-fat free nature, and not the kind sweetened with corn-syrup either. This is like looking up at the clouds spotting cumulus creatures taking form in the changing shapes, I think I can see Mr. Potato Head laying on his back.

Bobby Socks trees on the Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

My grandfather once told me, “One can never have too many Bobby Socks trees in a blog posting”. Sage advise if you ask me. We are finished exploring the Fountain Paint Pots. There is one more stop we’ll make for the sake of one of the other travelers with us who has not yet been to Black Sand Basin. I will wait river side chatting with a family of three who delivered themselves to the basin on snowshoes as the others make a mad dash to circumnavigate the geysers and hot springs. I have seen too much, my cake has two feet of frosting on it, another inch matters not a lick. But is the day over? Heck no, that means there will be more, like it or not.

A coyote on the Upper Geyser Basin not far from the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

Back at the Snow Lodge we scramble towards Old Faithful where the visitor center also happens to be. Caroline digs through a snow bank looking for a snowflake. She must find a keen example of a fallen ice crystal to draw in her Junior Ranger guide. She is soon to finish the hard work invested in her attempt to qualify for the honor of donning a Yellowstone Junior Ranger Snow Patch and badge. Magnifying glass and pencil stowed we are quickly underfoot once more, but we are not alone in our quick pace. A coyote passes behind some trees to emerge on a well worn snow path to our right and casually saunters by like this was just about the most normal thing for him or her to be doing shortly before dinner time. The coyote eyed us wearily, while we eyed how snugly his winter coat looked and at the same time wishing not to see a growling hungry muzzle aiming for our tender parts.

Caroline Wise holding her Junior Ranger Snow Patch from Yellowstone National Park January 2010

One last test, measure the wind chill. Park Ranger Rita Garcia examines Caroline’s handiwork at filling in correct answers, she inspects the hand drawn snowflake, confirms snow temperatures, and reads her writing of a short narrative of our trip so far – you can bet Caroline didn’t write at length, she would probably still be at the visitors center two weeks later waiting for Ranger Rita to finish if she had been writing like her wind bag husband. To announce that the excited, proud, beaming face above qualified for her first Junior Ranger badge shouldn’t be necessary as you can see for yourselves that she is indeed in possession of one of those coveted rare Snow Patches. Now she wants patches from all other National Park that offer them.

Long exposure at night of someone walking through the photo with a head mounted flashlight with a ghostly image of Caroline Wise on the right at Fountain Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park January 2010

If it is dark it must be tour time. Andrew is back with souvenir thermos cups and hot chocolate as we load into the Bombardier for an evening tour of Steam & Stars. A return visit to the Fountain Paint Pots, this time without the light of day. This is a listening tour as much as it is a chance to look up to watch the milky-way sparkle above on this clear night. We walk, we listen. Andrew tells the group what we are listening to. The others are standing and trying to watch the non-stop eruption of Clepsydra Geyser while I lag behind near the almost dormant Jet Geyser, squatting with my camera mounted low on the tripod trying in vain to capture anything of the night. Nothing. But not for long. About the third or forth attempt I hear the scurrying patter of feet not twenty feet away from me. Fighting back panic I turn on my flashlight and in a frenzy scan the ground and boardwalk trying to find eyes glowing back at me so I could identify the object of terror, hoping it was a night squirrel or something small like that. I hesitated on telling anyone else on the tour because I knew they would pick up on the near hysterical fear pounding through my veins when Andrew, oh, so innocuously tells the group ahead of a coyote crossing to the left. Relieved that the ghosts of the Nez Perce weren’t here for retribution my heart calms, just as Jet Geyser starts a small eruption – wow, the luck of it all. Back at the Snow Lodge we are joined by Joanne, Rick, and Kim who were also on the Stars & Steam tour for dessert and some wonderful conversation between a bunch of strangers. It’s late, approaching eleven as I finish scribbling a few notes so I wouldn’t forget some of the details of the day. Time to put the pen down and make our way over the snow back to our cabin.