Last week a friend and I drove out to Pawnee Buttes, in the Pawnee National Grassland. This is on the prairie in northeast Colorado, not far south of Wyoming and Nebraska. It was a warm but lovely day. The grassland is beautiful: lots of miles on dirt roads; beautiful undulating hills; and the isolated buttes themselves. The only downside is the sheer number of oil and gas facilities out here, along with the accompanying truck traffic. In a time when it’s imperative that we phase out fossil fuels, I was discouraged to see the amount of fracking and other fossil-fuel extraction on this, one of our national treasures.
We’ve had freezing fog the past couple of nights. Here’s what it looked like on the trees and plains bordering the interstate north of Fort Collins, not too far south of the Wyoming border. The sky wasn’t really sunny, and all of the colors were muted. Interstate exits are infrequent on I-25 between north Fort Collins and Cheyenne, and the one that would have worked looked to be blocked by an accident, so I finally pulled off onto the shoulder and shot through the side windows and windshield. Don’t like to do that for photographs, but this was too beautiful to pass up.
My drive back to Loveland from the Tetons took me through the Wind River Indian Reservation, where I saw a highway sign that said “Sacajawea’s Gravesite.” After a failed attempt to locate it, I got directions at a roadside shop, which took me to a small but colorful cemetery next to a field where a herd of pronghorn antelope were grazing. Some of the markers in the cemetery were brightly painted wood crosses; others were more-conventional stone. But all of the graves were dotted with artificial flowers and little knick-knacks. I don’t know if this is typical of present-day American Indian cemeteries. I also wondered if there might be a Latino influence here. Whatever the answer, it makes standard American cemeteries look pretty, well, dead in comparison.
But I digress. Sacajawea’s marker was about halfway up the slope. People had left all sorts of little offerings at the base. The infant, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, that she carried on the Lewis and Clark expedition has a marker next to hers. It seemed remarkable to me that my route home so unexpectedly took me within a mile of Sacajawea’s gravesite. It also seemed like a scandal that there were no signs, once you were off the highway, to point the way to this lonely, windswept cemetery. I paid my respects, wishing that I had some little thing to leave that would be appropriate.
Then, after I got home, I discovered that I might not have been paying homage to Sacajawea at all in that desolate place. There is, in fact, quite a controversy about Sacajawea’s death. Some documentary evidence that does not quite rise to the level of proof indicates that she died in 1812, in South Dakota. The cemetery marker I saw underscores an alternate hypothesis, also generally considered unproven: that Sacajawea survived, lived with the Comanches for some time, and eventually returned to her people, the Shoshone, on the Wind River reservation, where she died in 1884, around the age of 100.
Some websites mention the controversy; others simply state one or the other hypothesis as the truth. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that we’ll never know the truth about Sacajawea’s death.
So my trip ended with a mystery. It seemed fitting that this day also ended with a staggeringly dramatic sunset, which I photographed by pointing my camera toward the passenger-side window as I raced along with the traffic on I-25. It was past dusk. I didn’t dare try to pull off on the shoulder, and there was no exit handy. I just hoped that somehow the camera would focus well enough for one semi-sharp photograph. And it did.
My second full day in Yellowstone started with a traffic jam. After half an hour of inching along the road, I finally saw the reason for the hold-up: A entire herd of buffaloes was moving east between the road and the Madison River. Some of the buffaloes had found a nice place to roll cumbrously in the dust. Two males decided to spar. And I spotted a still-reddish baby buffalo in the group. If I’d been sitting in the passenger seat I could have reached out and touched some of these animals. As it was, for many of the photos I took I had to hold the camera up high to keep buffalo heads from being obscured by the door frame. And so, like everyone else on the road, I contributed to the traffic jam.
After the buffalo jam I hoped to visit a favorite of mine, Grand Prismatic Spring, but I gave up—cars spilled over from the parking lot all the way to the main road and more. Instead I spent an hour or so on Firehole Lake Drive, where there were few people but several interesting geysers and pools.
In the meadow between the geyser area and Firehole Lake, I stopped by this small stream and dipped my hand into the water. The morning was in the 40s, but the water was quite warm from the geyser runoff.
Eventually I drove south to West Thumb Geyser Basin, on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. From here you can see hot springs, geysers, the lake, and the distant mountains all in the same view. It was tough to get people-free shots here, because the boardwalks were crowded with selfie-taking tourists—a people jam. But it was worth the jostling to see the lake and the brilliant colors of the two pools below, the most beautiful at West Thumb.
I walked twice as far as I expected to at West Thumb. As I was heading back to the car from the lake, a ranger closed the boardwalk ahead of me because a group of elk were getting too close to the crowds, or vice versa. I backtracked along the lake all the way around to the other side of the basin—where people also were, you guessed it, being turned back toward the lake because of a large bull elk. So I backtracked over my backtrack and found a middle route up the slope.
At this point my feet were aching and I was extremely glad that I’d packed cheese and crackers and grapes in the car. Despite the crowds, some of the restaurants in Yellowstone had already closed for the season. After my early picnic supper, I drove down to Teton National Park, where the blinding sun just before sunset rendered the mountains extremely hazy. The photo below, considerably tinkered with in Photoshop, was the best I could do, which is not saying much. After getting lost a bit, I discovered that my motel for the evening—actually a cabin at the Togwotee Mountain Lodge—was about 15 miles east. And so I ended up not really seeing the Tetons on this trip. After several sleepless nights and lots of walking, I knew I needed to head home the next day.
But in the morning, before continuing east, I drove back about five miles west for a last glimpse of the mountains. And a wonderful visual effect occurred: As I rounded a curve, a mountain came into view on the horizon. Then another one, taller. Then another one, still taller. As the road continued curving, to my astonishment yet another mountain, massively tall, appeared. The Tetons are familiar to most Americans from countless movies and photographs. I’ve seen them on a couple of previous trips. Yet, like the Grand Canyon, they surprise you every time in person. I hope to go back.
When you’ve been away from a beautiful landscape, your memory loses some of the particulars of its beauty and changes others. That’s what I was thinking when I drove through the Lamar Valley (see last post). If Yellowstone had no geysers, no hot springs or mud pots or fumaroles—even if it had no elk and bison—it would still be a stunningly glorious place.
This day, however, I experienced another stunning aspect of Yellowstone: the sheer numbers of people. I knew it would be crowded, but I was astonished by just how crowded in was even in late September. The crowds included all sorts of people but were dominated by Japanese and, I think, Korean couples taking selfies at every pool, every geyser, every sign. Yet still I had a few moments by myself at Mammoth Hot Springs and at Porcelain Basin, part of the Norris Geyser Basin, literally the hottest spot in the park, with springs almost as hot as boiling, and highly acidic to boot.
The oranges and reds in these photos are created by communities of thermophiles (heat-loving bacteria); the greens are created by communities of cyanobacteria (also thermophiles, but a very different kind, commonly called blue-green algae). When the source of a spring changes and the spring dries up, these organisms die, and only the chalky whiteness of the travertine formations remains.
Porcelain Basin is my favorite place in Yellowstone because of the lovely colors, many of them pastel but some brilliantly vivid. The features here include not only hot springs and geysers but fumaroles—essentially, steam vents. A light spray from these vents misted my skin and hair as I walked down into the basin.
After Porcelain Basin, I drove through the Madison River valley to West Yellowstone to secure a hotel room for the night, then got to Old Faithful at dusk. I’ve seen this geyser on several previous trips, but never saw so many people waiting for it to erupt. It was fortunate that I wasn’t anxious to get a good photo of Old Faithful, because it was almost dark and both of the batteries for my Olympus were exhausted. At the moment the geyser started to erupt, hundreds of cell phones were lifted up simultaneously by the people in attendance. To an alien it would have resembled some bizarre worship ritual. Here’s one of my obligatory iPhone photos—color noise and all—to cap off this day.
Picking my road trip back up where I left off: On Day 3 I took the Beartooth Scenic Byway from just southwest of Red Lodge, Montana, to Yellowstone. I’d heard how beautiful this route is, and even though the day was foggy, rainy, and finally snowy, what I’d heard was true. This is, according to Wikipedia, the highest-elevation road in Montana or Wyoming, and somewhere recently I read that the rocks exposed at Beartooth Pass (elevation 10,947 feet) are Pre-Cambrian, making them some of the oldest exposed anywhere in the lower 48 states. The drive is through glaciated terrain. Near the top of the pass is a large plateau with many small alpine lakes. It started snowing as I drove across the plateau, and at the pass itself the view was totally obscured. The wind was up and the temperature was down to 28 degrees, so I didn’t venture out of the car.
The weather gradually cleared as I descended the west side of the pass. Aspens, a waterfall, and distant peaks made this a beautiful drive. The highway, which begins in Montana and then dips down through Wyoming, curves back up to Montana and the small mountain town of Cooke City, where it was snowing. Heading out from Cooke City, you come to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Almost as soon as I entered Yellowstone, I spotted two bison near the road. I was delighted. Well, little did I know that two bison were nothing compared to what was coming: whole herds! Buffaloes on the road, even. Buffaloes spread all across the Lamar Valley, where the snow had stopped, the sun had come out, and the meadows looked golden.
As I got close to Mammoth Hot Springs, I could see steam rising from the far-off terraces. In town, elk were hanging out on the grounds of the local clinic. A couple of weeks earlier, a tourist had drawn the ire of a bull elk here and narrowly escaped injury. I parked at the clinic for a few minutes, where this bull elk was bugling and keeping his little harem pointed in the direction he felt was suitable. The sign in the clinic window, which I didn’t notice until I was looking at these photos, reads: “Elk present?!?! Use back door.” This elk certainly looked and sounded like he didn’t want to be trifled with, and I took this photo through the windshield. Tomorrow: Hot springs and geysers!
Taken at an abandoned gas station in Powder River, Wyoming.