Thursday, May 26, 2011

Head West, Young Man (Part III)

     We woke early the next morning, our bodies still on East Coast time, and although the clock said 7:00, we felt rested and ready to head out into the park.  Eager to get Bro one last good, hot meal before he moved into his park headquarters, we headed to the dining room of the Inn, where I filled him up on eggs, bacon, oatmeal, fruit, juice, and lots of steaming hot coffee. With the satisfaction that a mother feels when she knows her offspring are well-fed, we got into our separate cars and set off for Lake Yellowstone.  The extra time we had gained from our early start meant we could take the longer Madison-Norris-Canyon route through the park and hopefully catch a glimpse of something interesting as we caravaned around the upper loop.
     I had the beginnings of a small lump in my throat as we drove off in our separate cars, sadly aware that our time together was quickly coming to an end.  I would spend several more days in the park, running errands, sightseeing, trying to grab a quick moment or two with Bro after his work day ended, but it wouldn't be the same as our trip cross-country together.  He would be settling into a new environment and certainly didn't need or want his mother hovering around. Before we left for the lake, I asked him if he wanted me to stay out of sight while he checked into park headquarters, not wanting to embarrass him in front of his new work mates, willing to be invisible if needed. I almost cried when he laughed at me and said, "Of course not. You're not going to embarrass me. That's stupid." Oh, how I love that boy!
     We arrived at the cluster of rustic cabins that served as the office, equipment room, training area, and staff headquarters.  Several rangers were seated around buckets of supplies, busily mending gill nets and taking inventory of equipment that was being hauled out of winter storage.  They were friendly, relaxed, and easy to talk to, obviously very happy with their work environment and pleased that a new crop of interns was arriving to help.  Cole offered to drive us to the "fish dorm"  which was located about a mile down the road. He had been a college intern last summer and was now a seasonal employee, a step-up from his last position but not quite full time. The rangers were quick to tell me that many interns returned as park employees, and I imagined Bro calling home at the end of summer to tell us that medical school had been ditched for a career as a ranger.
       The dorm was located in the employee residential area, a small community within the park where year-round and seasonal employees had cabins and homes.  Typical of national park facilities, the dorm was a dark brown, stained wood structure with several parking spaces lining the front, basic but solid and purely functional.  I was impressed with the large kitchen-- several sinks, four refrigerators, ample cabinet and counter top space, and a separate dining area off to the side.  Cole quickly informed us that the kitchen was a definite upgrade from last year, thanks to the fire started by a careless intern, a young man whose career with the national park system was short-lived after he burned down the kitchen.
       The dorm had eight bedrooms, with one hall designated as "Male" and the other as "Female." Until that moment, I had simply assumed that all the fishing interns would be "male", but about that  time, a blond girl named April walked out of her dorm room and said "Hi!." Well, so much for that theory, I thought, as I shook her very-female-hand and introduced myself. The thought of a co-ed dorm certainly put a twist on my mental concept of Bro's summer experience in Yellowstone, but I noticed that the boys already seemed oblivious to the presence of the opposite sex as they were too busy examining hand-tied caddis and nymphs and comparing a large assortment of fly-tying equipment.
      Dorm-style bathrooms and shower stalls were located on each hall, and the sleeping quarters opened into a large living area where a television, bookcase, sofa and chairs lined the walls. Jay and Dominique had already settled into their rooms at the end of the "Male" hall, Bro selected his room--lucky number four-- and began to move in.  As he unloaded supplies from the car, I made up his bed, unpacked his duffel bags, and folded clothes into his dresser.  It took much less time than I had anticipated for him to move in, and as the last load was positioned into his room, I knew it was time for me to head out. We said quick goodbyes, trying not to get locked into the land my nephew has termed "goodbye purgatory" (a hovering world of drawn-out farewells, multiple hugs and repetitive goodbyes from which we often seem unable to escape).
     I was alone now, in the park on my own, and actually a little excited about the prospect of a few days on my very own schedule, doing exactly what I wanted, a solitary traveller.  I could stop and take as many pictures as I liked, could gaze for hours at the scenery, could wander and meander and backtrack and lolly gag as much I wanted, without having to answer to a single, solitary soul. This could be fun.
     I had promised my family I would not do anything stupid while I was alone in the park, that I would not hike back trails or get off the beaten path, talk to strangers or pick up hitchhikers,  wouldn't chase bears or try to touch a buffalo, and I really meant to abide by those promises.  I started off on the right track, driving slowly through Hayden Valley, past Mary Mountain, snapping pictures from a respectable distance. I turned into the lower rim drive that led into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and only briefly pulled a "tourist" moment when I stopped the car in the middle of the road to take a  river picture from the bridge.  There were no cars in front of me or behind me,  the road was deserted, so it wasn't actually a dumb move. I did it rather quickly and figured it would not count as the "one stupid thing" that I had secretly allotted myself.
     The "one stupid thing" happened the next day-- a morning I had planned to spend covering every inch of the boardwalks and trails that lined Old Faithful.  The area is numerous with cone geysers, fountain geysers, and geo-thermal pools,  and if you are really lucky, you can time your visit to see many of the geysers erupting. This was going to be a very lucky day for me, all because I happened upon a group of "geyser gazers". These individuals are dead-serious about their geysers. They spend hours watching eruptions and talking about eruptions. They drive from miles around and plan vacations around geysers. Some volunteer in the park to keep detailed accounts of the geysers, and they  walk around with little notepads and pencils, marking the start and stop time of each eruption, annotating the complex histories of each of the major and minor geysers. They sit for hours waiting for thermal activity to begin, armed with water bottles, hats, cameras, and snacks. Gazers can tell you more details about each geyser than most people want or need to know.
Future Geyser Gazer
      I had no idea that geysers could be so addictive, but  I learned quickly after I stumbled upon the group gathered in front of Grand Geyser. I had just finished watching Old Faithful go off and was ambling on down the boardwalk. Nothing was happening at this particular point, but a small band of people had claimed the front row of benches that lined the viewing area by Grand, one of the biggest fountain geysers in the park. They were busily looking at their watches and scribbling in notebooks, and I was curious as to what had them so engrossed. I sat down beside a well-equipped woman, asked what everyone was so interested in, and learned that Grand was scheduled to erupt within 45 minutes.This was evident because the smaller vent beside Grand was active, with small eruptions occurring every 18 minutes, a signal that Grand was building up to blow. Directly behind us, Castle was in full glory, blowing water and steam in the air for it's full and impressive 45 minute eruption, the longest in the park.  The gazers informed me that the timing today was perfect to see all the major geysers erupt and that I was welcome to follow them on their quest. I joined their group and headed to Beehive, Anemone, Plume, Solitary, and Turban. We watched Riverside, where the water blew horizontally across the river, then  trotted quickly up to catch Daisy. As we walked, the gazers taught me about various thermal activity and the different patterns and signals that lead up to an eruption. They pointed out which geysers are active and which are asleep and which ones have not shown activity for extended periods.
      After trailing the gazers all morning, I decided to branch off on my own and head over to Morning Glory Pool, a thermal spring that used to be as blue and beautiful as the flower for which it was named.
    "Oh, you're going to see that dirty old pool?" a gazer named Tom asked. "It's a mess now.  If you want to see something pretty, you need to go up to Artemesia, it's beautiful, sapphire blue, and not many people know where it is."
         I had heard that Morning Glory had lost it's beauty, a victim of homicide by tourism.  Visitors to the park, enamored with the seemingly endless depth of the cerulean pool, were tempted to throw things into the water in a quest to reach the center of the earth.  As a result, many of the vents and springs that fed the pool had become clogged, and Morning Glory was dying a slow and ugly death. I was shocked at the change from my last visit. There was not a speck of brilliant blue left, and the previously crystalline water had become a contaminated, murky brown puddle of algae.
      Tom had been correct. Morning Glory was a mess, and I wanted to find the hidden pool and see something beautiful.  His directions to Artemesia had been brief: get off the boardwalk at Morning Glory, take the trail into the woods until the deep patch of snow (about two feet deep and 100 yards long), stay in the footprints in the snow, then just go on down the trail until you find Artemesia.   It sounded easy to find and I set off on my own.
  And that was the one stupid thing I did.  I wouldn't have taken the path if I had know when I started how remote the trail was or how deep into the forest it went.  I became a little leary as I walked down the narrow, isolated path and into the woods. I had assumed that as soon as I got past the snow patch, Artemesia would be just on the other side. What Tom had neglected to tell me was that after the snow, the trail would open into  a pasture full of grazing buffalo-- huge, horned beasts that eyed me suspiciously as I cautiously stepped around them.  The pasture led to a forested trail of old growth timber and heavy underbrush, territory that screamed "Be Bear Aware! Be Bear Aware!" with each step I took.  I had been quiet in the buffalo pasture, but in the forest, I clapped and yelled and sang "Go away bears, please, no bears, Dear Lord don't let me get eaten by a bear.."  I made as much noise as one scared, lonely woman can make in the woods, stomping and hooting and hollering to warn any roaming bear that I was there and did not wish to make their acquaintance.  
      At the top of the trail, the woods opened up onto a cliff that offered a breathtaking view of mountains in the distance and the river valley below.  I walked to the edge of the cliff and looked down. About twenty feet below, the deep blue and crystal clear waters of Artemesia sparkled in the sun, a gentle mist rising as the warm waters met the crisp, cool air.  I forgot about my fear as I stared into the bottomless pool, mesmerized by the intensity of the color and the purity of it's depths. The world was quiet and clean here, unspoiled by human hands. This had been worth the hike, and if I made it back to the Inn without getting eaten by a bear, it would have been worth using this moment as my "one stupid thing."
     With a deep breath and a lot of loud clapping and singing, I headed back down the trail, thanking God for showing me Artemesia.

praying like mad that I would not end my cross-country trip in the stomach of a grizzly.

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