Monday, September 13, 2010

Yellowstone: The Grand Loop Road

September 11th, 2010. Todays marks, amongst other things, the ninth anniversary of my first even University class. I wonder what that version of myself would think of this version of myself. He might probably ask, “where's the trench coat?”

We got up determined to do what the ranger said was impossible – see Yellowstone Park in one day. Step one was accomplished. We were still alive. The guy we let camp in our site turned out not to be a murderer. Well, he didn't murder us, anyway, so there's that.

Step two would involve fueling up the car – the Yellowstone Grand Loop Road is not a short one.

Step three was something about breakfast.

But then – then, step four. Start driving the loop. From Mammoth Springs we headed east along the top of the loop, travelling the opposite direction from where we set out yesterday. I had hoped that travelling this way would put the sun in the right spot as we made our way around the park. It would get up to Old Faithful while the sun was right, anyway.

Making the clockwise loop we headed out to where the ranger had, yesterday, suggested we might find bison. There were no bison. Not even one little bison to be seen along the whole stretch of road. But that was alright – we were too occupied looking at the “silly cars only” club. It seemed that a half dozen Model Ts were making their way around the park. These were not unlike the cars we saw coming out of the Redwood park a while back. Something strange was a foot. Seeing one of these cars? Fine. But a whole convoy of them? No. I could not accept something this ridiculous as they bumbled along the roads, both paved and dirt.

Our first stop was a six mile road that ran parallel to the main loop. Apparently we would see some lovely sights. I wouldn't know – I was too busy trying not to bottom out on the ungraded dirt path. Go back, go back, I may have been screaming at myself – but it was all for not, as it was a one way road, and other cars had unwittingly followed in behind us, expecting to see something wonderful that just was not to be.

Thirty minutes later, emerging victorious if not a little beaten, we found our first pull off. A petrified tree. That's right – another special tree. It seems like this country is just full of them. Now you can't just drive to the tree, there's a little walk involved, about two or three minutes in length. This wouldn't seem like much, but when you see the tree, it's all fenced off and really – it just looks like a short trunk. I appreciate that it is an amazing feat, petrified when half of the United States was covered with volcanic ash from the eruption of the volcano which is the Yellowstone National park – but, still – just a tree. Saw it, checked it off the list, and kept driving.

Next up was a river and a waterfall. The light was in the wrong direction for photographs, and with Katherine failing to act as my counter balance, taking on my somewhat jaded opinions as her own, we both shrugged claiming, “I've seen water before,” and then headed off. I don't know how I feel about this monster I may have helped create – I'll just tack it up to her being tired after a cold night's sleep. Once we reached our first sight of true beauty and colour her attitude changed, and she was back to her normal, excited about the world, self. And that always rubs off on me.

Cars were stopped in both directions – a coyote ran through the field. Behind me a man on a scooter nearly ran into the back of our car, apparently unimpressed that we were not moving, choosing t take his anger out on us: those directly in front of him, clearly responsible for the entire flow of traffic on the road.

We arrived at the Mud Volcanoes. These are one of the two reasons to visit this side of the park. Here a number of pits and pools bubble with churning mud, grey gloop springing in to the air, and settling back down into the stew festering on the surface of the earth.

Small caves issue fowl smelling smoke, as water boils outside – here there be dragons. Sour lakes on plateaus above contain water slowly transforming into sulphuric acid. Swimmers be advised – jumping in is at your own risk.

Rings of colour surround the pools, each a different type of microorganism staking claim their region. The temperature of the water can be told be the colour – each species needing specific conditions to survive. A living rainbow is formed with blue, the clear waters, in the centre. These waters reach temperatures exceeding two hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The pools boil here, and hot water can burn in less than three seconds.

There have been cases of tourists falling in, a painful death.

Pools of all shapes and sizes have formed, and a small trail took us past all of them in this area.

As we proceeded farther down the Grand Loop we came upon the other reason to travel this side of the park. The lake. Brilliant blue, with snow capped mountains along the shore line – this is a sight not to be missed. And while, once more, the sun was in a less than ideal position for capturing the splendor of this area, it was still remarkable.

Near the bottom of the lake another hot springs beckoned us out of the warm car, into the chilly air. More pools of all colours awaited us, and as we walked the board walks, built to prevent people from falling through the thin crust, we marveled at how the blues contrasting the sparkling whites of the land.

One pot existed within the lake itself. While the water in the vast body reaches a max of seven Celsius in the summer, in the pot it is near boiling. Stories are told of how fishermen used to catch from the ocean, and then drop it into the geothermal pot to cook, pulling it out to eat, all without ever taking the fish off the hook.

This is no longer allowed.

People fell in.

Give someone a pretty pool of boiling water, and you're just asking for trouble. Those are the lessons best learned from Yellowstone National Park.

Rivers of glowing yellow cut through the shimmering surface of the rock leading steaming liquid all the way down into the lake itself. A wonderful contrast of colours, form, and temperature. Still, even with all this activity, the lake is cold at the best of times.

As noon came and went we finally found ourselves back at Old Faithful. The predicted eruption was one hour from when we arrived. Slowly making our way through the information centre, mostly pushing buttons and pulling levels without paying attention to the education that said levers and buttons were trying to present us with, we killed half an hour.

With event time near, we grabbed a seat on the bench, then on the wooden deck under the bench, as others took seats along here, which threatened to block our view, we past the time by playing Cthulhu dice. Ten minutes before schedule, everyone took out their cameras and made ready for the experience.

It seems sad to me, still today, that so many people – myself included, will never see the eruption, so concerned with looking at our LCD screens in order to capture it all for future posterity.

When the water and steam did shoot up into the air, under the glowing sun, it continued for some time allowing for shot after shot, and then moments to just look and be amazed. Yes, I'd seen geysers before. Yes I'd seen this very one less than twenty four hours before, but seeing it now, under the afternoon sun – it really was something to behold.

After the eruption we stopped for some lunch, and then headed to a gift shop where I asked two tellers to search their tills in hopes of coming across the elusive Iowa quarter. No such luck. This was beginning to seem like a lost cause. However, we did end up with a Yellowstone National Park quarter – part of their new fifty states quarter program which is set to run the better part of the coming decade. Maybe if we take another American road trip five to ten years from now, we'll have to find those instead. I'm sure Iowa will continue to be elusive.

After our meal, with full stomaches, feeling as if we'd seen everything there was to see, we started to make our way back up the loop. Of course there were always more hot springs to stop at, one which ha a large crow living in the parking lot, taking up ominous positions on the mirrors of those who park to take a peek.

Different colours lashed out at us. No two pools were the same, no matter how similar. Each demanded its own special position in the park, and its own level of attention.

As we made our way through our final basin , the steam poured forward, obstructing all views except for the of the silhouetted photographers using the occurrence for ethereal images.

I wondered what this area would look like in the summer, when the air war warm, and the steam – presumably – less. I wondered what it would look like in the winter, waters still bubbling away while the land was blanketed in snow.

Small terraces chipped into the rock, Peru in miniature.

Oranges, blues, greens, and reds, all came to life as the sun lowered in the sky.

As we returned to our site, we paused to photograph some buffalo wandering the field. Once more, they were in the same position they were n yesterday. Why that ranger had suggested areas with minimal or no buffalo confused me, when clearly there was this location – plentiful with the animals.

Cruising back to the camp site after the sun had fully set we were initially distressed to not see our tent where we had left it. Had it been stolen? Did the camp not think we paid for both nights? But no – there it was, fallen and collapsed beside where we had left it.

Inside our gear was tossed around. We emptied the tent, and reset it back where it should be. It didn't seem windy today, but apparently it must have been to rip the tent, pegs, and gear away from where it had been.

One pole was slightly snapped at the end – no real problem, as they still fit together well. Another was warped, sliced down the middle.

With nothing we could do in the moment, we set it up as best we could, crawled inside, and attempted to sleep.

Thirty minutes later something could be heard peeing on the fabric walls. Person, dog, or beast – I do not know. I'm not sure what I would have preferred either.

It had been a long day – ten hours around the loop to see the park in its entirety, hiking trails, and offshoots excluded. 242 kilometers we drove from start to finish. Yellowstone – it is a very large park. One that you could easily spend a week in. One that would be worth every single minute there. But for us? Our time here was through. Tomorrow we'd be moving on once more – so much country left to cover, with every day eating away at the time remaining.

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