I always left the keys in the ignition overnight.One dawn, I made a futile attempt of starting the engine gently, to allow the others to keep snoring in the back and in the cabin over my head.The coast and shimmy of our home would lull them long enough to let me feel like a chance clueless steward of daybreak assigned to this return side of the continental divide.I had a little moment.The wilderness had little me.
With light yet to burst over the distant ridge, white fog hung in the forest we were emerging from, like ghosts had passed out only an hour ago and half-dissolved among the pines.Whatever else had happened, the wilds had taken over during the night all around us.
A family of four bull elk glanced up from a clearing.As I rumbled past them back toward the main road, I waved in apology, asking that they not mind me.The largest one- the adult male with antlers like a separate tree system and full, dark fur at the throat- kept one eye trained my way, knowing better.But it was I on wheels, representing the race of the drowsy self-aware, who recognized my family and that of the elk as two sets and drew a loose connection.This was a spectacle that I’d likely taken for granted, despite the awe.
“Hey!Look everybody elk!” I proclaimed to a tough crowd.
The elk reentered the forest and I continued down the road that stretched empty for long intervals between ranger pick-ups and fly-fishermen SUVs and past meadows rising at points with a sulfuric steam.We were looping south toward more natural spectacles we’d been warned to not come all this way to skip.Being difficult, I drove slower the closer I got.
“Are we going to the volcano today?” my older daughter called down to me in a clear voice that meant she’d been awake possibly since we’d shoved off.I was miffed she’d chosen to ignore the elk announcement.
“Hey…yes.But it’s not a volcano, they call it a geyser.”
Her sister then woke to commence the giggling and jostling from wall-to-wall in the cabover sleeping compartment perfectly sized to them.This reminded me that keeping passengers stowed overhead while driving was fairly unsafe and roundly illegal.
“Try not to wake your mother,” were the first words of warning that occurred to me.
Old Faithful was the first and foremost attraction of Yellowstone National Park.We pulled safely into its parking lot like reentering a metropolis, though we’d been, and were still, within the park all this time.Once we had pressed coffee or airtight-sealed Cheerios, we stepped out to walk among the throngs of those who also hoped they’d timed their visit nicely to the main attraction.Dry-erase boards tacked up around the area displayed the next eruption time. We still had thirty-seven minutes.
We took seats on a semi-circle of benches before a mound with a billowing hole at its center.I explained to my girls that soon we’d see a huge blast of water.So, you know, sit tight.As the estimated time approached, we held silent, like we were waiting for a concert or a sermon to start.The celebrity geyser was still in the dressing room.Every few minutes, waist-high spurts of water splashed up over the rise of blanched rock, causing oo’s and aah’s from the finally standing-room only audience.The water dropped back to wispy vapors and cameras fell back into laps.False alarm.
“J’ai plus batterie dans le caméscope, cheri,” I overheard a father of three say.We weren’t in Burgundy anymore, I realized.To my left, we also weren’t in Düsseldorf. But with my mid-Atlantic accent, I felt like the sorest thumb of a foreigner present, the kind the bison harangued about the most.
The geyser teased the audience several more times with what the Yellowstone staff called “preplay” before the eruption (as opposed to foreplay before the emission).Soon people began to complain openly, as though they’d paid good money and nature better deliver, or else.
Then, patience nearly tried, Old Faithful roared toward the clouds, a blast three stories high, its spray misting our faces.It seemed to render moot most of the anticipation, startling just about everyone as the realization struck that under the soil we’d been waiting on, dubbed America at the moment, all this activity had been boiling over and there would be very little any of us could ever do to control it.Old Faithful just happened to gargle and explode to a pattern, whereas all else beneath the surface did not. Any supposedly dormant geologic feature could see fit to overturn the inn, visitors center and paved roads back to civilization without a preplay’s moment of warning.So we were here about a volcano, after all.
The eruption lasted for several minutes before Old Faithful settled once more into tranquil steam.Some clapped at the conclusion.I saw a ranger wiping away the nearest dry-erase eruption time and felt-tipping out a new one, calculated based on the duration of the gushing we’d just seen.That Old Faithful not only went off, but also stopped going off on relative cue provided reassurance.The last widespread volcanic upheaval happened in this park 640,000 years ago.Things were all under control.We could place our faith in nature.Thanks to this stalwart friend of ours, we could rest easy knowing the geothermal wonderland preserved inside the country’s oldest national park was safe territory.If you need more convincing, watch, the next show is in ninety minutes.
Other more fickle geysers waited nearby along with a landscape of shallow, colorful pools and simmering mudpots.The devout followed the walking paths around them and stopped at the appointed observation areas.They wanted to take nothing for granted nor did they want to return home only to relate the story that they’d passed on the singular sight their neighbors and coworkers associated with this national park.
I however, by late morning, itched to get back into the fog.
In the welcome brochure, there was already talk about national parks being America’s best idea, which would be repeated for the Ken Burn’s documentary a year later.Yellowstone had spectacle at every turn and we, like the crowds, only saw a fraction, even if we did branch out from tourist circuits or woke in woods that could have been located somewhere at the end of the world.The whole park deserved more of our time, though we had a familiar urge to push on to places unheralded and a bit less trustworthy.
We crossed Yellowstone’s border. We moved on through valleys that connected lush mountains to the browner and dustier Wyoming.We passed ranches like kingdoms for the happiest horses alive.We pushed on beyond landscape flattened and zapped empty by the sun at the Wind River Indian reservation.
By the outskirts of town of Lander, Sinks Canyon State Park had a campground entirely devoid of other people.We settled into a site along the Popo Agie River, a river notable for the fact that it runs underground into a cavern for a quarter of a mile before reemerging into rushing rapids.Again, its banks showed no sign of human presence, beside a corkboard with a tiny roof over it listing park rules, which evidently this flyer was here to enforce.
We walked toward the sound of the rapids.I couldn’t explain its eeriness because no one else beside the four of us was there to confirm how beautiful the scene actually was.Nothing about the spectacle was appointed.None of the land within view was designated as our best idea.So we confirmed this for ourselves.At day’s end, playing the steward again, I was here, chiefly, to notice the lesser spectacle.Its surprise splendor turned up intimate.
My daughters and I walked out onto the larger, dry boulders above the brisk current.The sun illuminated zigzagging mosquitoes and flecks of water splashing off the stones like tiny shooting stars.Their tiny arcs of light vanished when the sun dropped below the canyon wall, having passed from the east to another ridge on the west.
“Daddy, this is something incredible!” my older daughter shouted standing behind me.
“I know, it really is.”I turned around to realize she was looking down, not up, at a side pool between the rocks and the riverbank.Water striders skated across the still surface by her feet.
“These spiders are walking on the top of the water!”