About 640,000 years ago, a massive volcano erupted in the northwest corner of Wyoming, creating a “caldera” that we now know as Yellowstone National Park. Parts of the park are peaceful and serene; there are miles of yellow fields where elk and bison graze, rivers where fly fishers (and bison) wade, and a huge lake that stretches more than 100 miles around and offers incredible sunsets against the mountains in the distance.
But the park is also a reminder of how unapologetically powerful the Earth really is, and how small and helpless we are, driving along worrying about flat tires, places to sleep, and where to buy milk (being on the road is also a good reminder of how lucky we are to live near decent grocery stores that carry fresh fruits and vegetables).
Elian was a fountain of facts about the geothermal risks of Yellowstone: “We are actually on top of a supervolcano and if it blew again right now, we would all die,” “It would send ash three states away,” “There’s white hot molten lava beneath us that could incinerate us all if we got too close.” It’s all true, of course. Yellowstone is an active volcano and its geysers and thermal pools and mudpots are all evidence that there is a lot boiling right there under us. They are amazing to see (and smell, the sulpher gasses creating plenty of chances for the kids to make jokes about the Earth’s diet). And Old Faithful, of course, didn’t disappoint but did prompt us to ask if there are any estimates about when the supervolcano might again erupt. Probably not for at least 1,000 years, read an exhibit at the lodge museum. The exhibit also told us that there are up to 2,000 earthquakes in Yellowstone every year, mostly small and undetectable. But still. Volcanoes and earthquakes in one place? And what’s 1,000 years up against 640,000?
My first concern had been bears since I was asked, when we first pulled into our campground, to sign a waiver that we understood we were in “grizzly” territory and might sustain severe injury or death. No late night strolls in the moonlight, I guess. But after a few days (we were happily staying in the park for a week), our little spot with all of the other RVers seemed like home and we adjusted to the bearproof trash cans and warning signs everywhere. We never bought the bear spray that was advertised everywhere and did just fine. The wildlife of Yellowstone, even the bison who fought right next to our car, was wonderful to see and never caused us any real trouble.
Still, Mother Nature clearly wanted us to know that she was in control. Wildfire warnings on highway signs, which had gradually changed from moderate to high as we drove to and through the park, had already heightened our sense of vulnerability. Evidence of past fires was all around us, charred trees standing and lying like pick-up sticks on what seemed like every other mountain we passed. We had learned from a video in the visitor center that only fire could burst open the cones of the lodgepole pines of Yellowstone, spreading their seeds to ensure a next generation of trees. Fire was necessary, helpful even, for the forest. But we were hearing more about the wildfires up north and in neighboring states and seeing local newspaper warnings that high winds and capricious storms could make them worse and bring them closer.
So when it rained one day, a cold driving rain, we were thrilled for the dry land and for ourselves. Snuggled into the Woodebago, we enjoyed a day of going nowhere, drinking coffee and talking while the kids played hours and hours of Minecraft. And then it hailed! First peas and then acorns of ice fell hard on our metal roof and we gathered around the windows to point and watch our first ever August ice storm.
By morning, it was as if it had never rained. Everything was dry again and the sun was shining, perfect conditions for a day trip to the Grand Tetons. Just an hour south, the Tetons are geographically part of the same mountains as Yellowstone (although geologically different, since no volcano lies under them) but the mountains seem more majestic and the park more pristine. For one, there are no busloads of tourists crowding with binoculars at every pull out in the road, no RV campsites full of families with their excited children and barking dogs, no cafeterias with lines of people waiting for chicken fingers and soft serve ice cream to watch Old Faithful do its thing. Instead, it seems that the ruggedly good-looking folks here must all come north from Jackson Hole, leaving their well-behaved children with a nanny (or au pair) so they can pose for some wilderness photo shoot with their zip-off convertible cargo pants and camelback water bottles. Even the Aspens, their heart-shaped leaves now with a hint of autumn gold, seem to know they are magazine worthy. The Grand Tetons really should be the backdrop for wilderness magazines; it’s that stunning. And we were lucky to see it all, and have an hour to rent canoes and paddle out onto Jenny Lake, one of the most beautiful places we’ve been.
We returned to Yellowstone for one more night, and then left out through West Yellowstone in the morning. Driving through the Gallatin National Forest (where, in 1959, a midnight earthquake triggered a massive landslide that sent, in a single minute, 80,000 tons of rock hurdling down a mountain, creating what is now “Earthquake Lake”), we are again faced with the facts of nature. There is smoke in the air and some of the mountains in front of us are barely visible as we reach Butte, Montana, famous for its copper mining and early labor unions. We’re not sure how smokey Glacier National Park will be but that’s where we’re bound, hoping to meet up with great friends and toast the wild nature of these Western mountains.