It was nice to simply walk out of a town for a change – no hassling with signs and unpredictable traffic. We’d planned a rather leisurely pace through Yellowstone. We had two days to walk 30 miles to our first designated camp site. Cars whizzed by us as we walked on the shoulder of a busy road. Why were they in such a hurry? The road went to a campground about 4 miles away. Did it really matter if they got there 20 seconds faster? I started making “slow down” signals to the speeding cars. It was my own version of street preaching, I thought maybe I’d get through to one or two of them, “Slow down and be saved!” Most of the cars just swerved to avoid me. One car of teens made my slow down gesture back to me, laughing with open mouths like it was cool new gang sign, straight from the hood. They had no idea what I was trying to convey. None of the people had any concept of what it was like to walk along a narrow road with two ton metal monsters screaming by, kicking up dust and rocks. Instant death was only a flinch away. More often, people didn’t understand the point of walking at all, anywhere. “Why don’t you just drive? you’d get there faster…”, I was asked a couple times. What was I supposed to say, that I hadn’t thought of it? Get where? I was already there. Getting somewhere else fast wasn’t the point, I wanted to get there as slowly as possible, the trip was in the walking, not the destination.
The previous day, our “day off”, had been filled with thunderstorms, we’d picked a good day to rest. Today it was hot. There was little shade on the road. Our busy road gave way to quieter gravel roads, then to a series of closed roads.
Much of the forest immediately west of Yellowstone had burned in 1988… along with a lot of forest in Yellowstone. The forest service had closed many of the logging roads in the area by digging giant trenches in them, then piling the removed earth on the roadbed next to the trench. Some of these berms were over our heads. All that work was done just to make sure some yahoos didn’t come tearing through the fragile burn area on their ATVs. Most of the signs that had identified the roads had fallen or burned or just disappeared.
Somewhere along the way, we missed Latham Spring. “There was a big arrow made of logs back there.” said Mario. I hadn’t seen it. We were a quarter mile past it. I looked on the map. No worry, there were plenty of streams up ahead. We continued on our way. It wasn’t the official CDT, so there were no regular signs (not like there were signs anywhere else anyway). I made little signs in the dirt with twigs, they spelled out “CDT”, with an arrow. I didn’t know how long my makeshift markings would last, but I figured at least a few weeks… long enough to help somebody… Seehawk and Sunshine were coming the same way and didn’t have detailed maps of the area… Maybe they’d see my signs.
We got to the steam, at least to where there was supposed to be a stream. There was nothing but a dry trench in the dirt. Hmmm, I thought. The next stream was the same, not even any green grass nearby. I looked at the map again, all the streams looked the same, were they all dry? I had to assume so. I had no water left, Mario had about a mouthful. It was another 12 miles to Summit Lake, the next source of water. It was 6PM. “I’m going for the lake”, I said. There was no way I was going to spend a miserable night, thirsty. Mario agreed. We were both already thirsty. But, if we just camped where we were standing, we’d still have to walk to Summit Lake in the morning, even more thirsty than we already were.
We walked along more abandoned roads as the daylight dimmed. We found a barely visible trail junction, marking the entrance to Yellowstone. It was a nondescript signpost set back from the old road on which we were walking. Next to the sign was a tree with an orange metal tag about 10 feet off the ground. Nobody hiked in that part of Yellowstone. All the “Yellowstone stuff” was miles away, in other parts of the park. There was no way to get to that entrance of the park other than walking… at least 5 miles.
Still, the park had at least marked the trail – orange tags on the trees every hundred yards or so… Plus, the tread was somewhat cleared, it just needed more foot traffic to stay that way. I was hungry. Hungry and thirsty. Thirst usually trumped hunger on the priority list, but I didn’t have many options. I unscrewed my water filter, hoping to find a few drips of water inside. Nothing. All I could think of was water. Moisture… uuuuuuh… If I drank, I could eat. I looked at the map again, there were a couple ponds about 2 miles to the south… but there was no way to find them, we were walking on a high flat featureless plateau – patches of dried grass and patches of sometimes burned trees. The volcanic soil was rough and dry. Slowly, I bit little chunks off a snickers bar and forced them down my parched throat.
It got dark. We still had 5 miles to go. We couldn’t see the orange trail markings anymore, but we managed to stay on track, looking for signs of the trail on the ground – stomped grass, sawed logs, a faint dirt path… We kept our bearings – due east. Up ahead, we saw something glowing behind the trees. What was it? Was somebody camped there? Were were at summit lake yet? Was it a fire? We knew that a fire was burning in the eastern part of the park, had another sprung up nearby? Then we were amazed, amazed by our own stupidity. It was the full moon, rising, glowing red on the horizon behind a clump of trees.
We continued walking along a grassy meadow. “Are we still on the trail?”, I asked Mario. “I think… um, no”, he responded. We stopped and looked around. Everything was dark, the moon had ducked behind some clouds. In the distant south, a thunderstorm was silently flashing over some hills. We looked at the ground, closer, harder. Nothing. We hiked back to where we thought we’d come from, still nothing. How long had we been off the trail? I didn’t think it had been too long, but I didn’t know. We started walking around, we were thirsty, thirstier every second, thirst never got better with time. Then it started to rain.
Rain was water though! Quickly, we pulled out every item of plastic and water-repellent nylon we had. I threw the contents of my pack all over the ground. Why was it that everything I wanted was always not where I needed it to be? I spread out my plastic pack cover, futilely trying to keep it flat in the wind. It rained just enough to get us moist. The wind made it cold. I did my best to slurp up the tiny droplets from my sheet of plastic, using my mouth like a dry-vac. It was pointless and pathetic. We were still miles from the lake, in the dark, somewhere in… That was right, we were in Wyoming. Somewhere in the thirst and darkness, we’d crossed the Wyoming border. “I want my Mommy”, Mario sulked in a thick Dutch accent, half kidding, half not. It was a dismal moment. “Come on man! we’re gonna find this trail”, I tried to excite us both. I was more determined than ever. Methodically, I covered the ground nearby, back and forth, back and forth. 50 yards away, I found it. A tree had fallen over, and underneath the shattered branches – an orange tag. We went to the tree, headed due east, and found our trail again.
A half hour later, we passed by something gurgling and hissing in the dark. The air stunk of sulfur. There were some hot springs nearby, they were on my map. There was supposed to be some fresh water nearby too. I wandered into the darkness, onto a slope of bare crusty dirt. Hmmm. I didn’t want to fall thin earth into some hidden cauldron. I turned around. We’d come that far, we could wait for the lake ahead. A mile more and we were there, a giant empty black space, shimmering quietly in the dark. Nirvana. 30 miles since 11AM… it was now 11PM. I filtered a bottle and tossed it to Mario. Everything was OK again. We camped right there. There was a designated campsite around the lake somewhere, but we weren’t about to try and find it.
I sat in my tarp, and thought about the day. When we’d gotten our permits in West Yellowstone, the park staff had made us watch a video about being “responsible” in the back-country. It was all stuff we’d heard a zillion times, or learned through experience. Actually, they skipped a few things. Also, the actors in the video were not dressed smartly (blue jeans?). As for us? camping without a permit, not hanging our food, not bringing enough water, hiking at night… Yup, we were smart all right. We knew what we were doing. Stupid video.
In the morning, the lake was covered with a layer of mist. We had nowhere to go all day. We were already there. I watched the lake wake up. A small herd of elk stomped away through the trees, crunching branches under their hooves. A deer ambled away silently, nimbly in the other direction. A group of 3 ducks floated down to the still water, making ripples in the glass. In the distance, a woodpecker knocked on a tree. It was the other Yellowstone, the one the tourists didn’t see. The rangers told us that 98% of the visitors to Yellowstone barely even get out of their cars, they just roll down their windows and point… maybe they walked around some steam vents near old faithful, 98%, was it their choice or fate? Most of the remaining 2% hiked a few miles to a waterfall or geyser, perhaps spent the night in a car-campground, a glorified parking lot. The number that actually got back-country permits was barely a measurable statistic. Still, while we were in Yellowstone, many of the back-country camp sites were reserved. That said a lot about how many people visited the park. None of them were at our lake though, Summit Lake was 8 miles west of Old Faithful, 10 miles east of the park boundary. In-between there was nothing but a lot of half-burned forest.
We packed up our stuff and looked for the designated camp site. According to our map, it was on the other side of the lake. After a half-hour of stomping through the trees, we gave up. We made a makeshift camp a little back from the lake shore, near the tree line. The grass was soft and short, we had all day to just lounge, read, take a brief swim in the cool sandy-bottomed lake, watch the world go by…
We decided to go explore some of the “thermal features” that we’d passed the night before. Most of them were about a half-mile from the trail, in the woods. The land was grey and brown, the antithesis of the surrounding forest. No wonder the Indians had been afraid of Yellowstone. The place looked evil, It was scorched, parched earth, it was bubbling mud, it was thin salty crusts, it was steam, it was sulphur gas, it was heat from the earth, it was rings of rusty yellow and brown algae under clear water, it was still emerald blue puddles emanating from some hidden source far below. It was as beautiful as either heaven or hell, take your pick.
We spent a couple hours marveling at the variety of random pools and puddles formed here and there – each of them distinct, yet all a part of some grand theme. We returned to the lake and watched nothing happen. Somewhere out there, beyond the lake, behind all the roads and trails, was a land that boasted a direct lineage back to a time before man. Nobody had ever lived in that land. Yellowstone was unique, it was the border of the prairie, it was the border of the mountains, it still held raw elements of each. I watched the sun move across the sky. I rested in the grass, fully occupied. I wanted to think that Yellowstone was what the world was like before people knew about it. Before people had changed things, and accepted those changes as facts. Before people had mined the mountains, cut the forest, killed the bison, killed the wolves, killed the grizzlies, brought in sheep, cows, barbed-wire, farms, roads, pollution, more people, cars, and all the rest of it. Where was all that progress taking us? It took me to Yellowstone, it took me back.
Nobody came. It was perfect. Eventually, the day passed, we ate dinner, we set up our tents. We did all the things we normally did, except for all the walking. It was my second zero day of the trip, the second one in 3 days. I was enjoying the ever-slowing pace.
In the morning, we hiked down from Summit Lake, away from the “hidden” Yellowstone, right into the Yellowstone with which everyone was familiar. I saw steam rising from the valley below, Old Faithful Geyser Basin. My map showed a giant network of pools, geysers and vents, each had a name, they’d all been discovered. I saw a thin line through the mist, specks of red and silver slowly wove through the land – the cars, the people. I didn’t see anybody until I was right down in the basin, at a trail junction. I waited for Mario as group after group of people walked by, fresh from the Walmart. Why were they all SO brightly colored? I wondered. Each one had bright, no BRIGHT red shirts, white shorts, clean white socks and multi-colored advertisements strung across their chests, “FUBU”. Good, I needed to know that. “Property of University of Ohio athletic department”, clever. They didn’t need to communicate, everything they needed to say was on their clothing, either in words or colors. I sat on a log, eating granola, smiling, saying, “hello” to the passer-bys. I was dressed in dirt-tones and ripped up shorts, a beard, a tan, and a magical hat – my own fashion statement of sorts. Mario caught up and we walked to a nearby waterfall.
A thick steady stream of cold water poured over a cliff. Where was all that water a couple days ago? I complained. More water, hot water, oozed from cracks in a cliff next to the falls, shiny sheets of green and rust-colored algae decorated the walls. Everywhere, there was steam. We headed down to the Geyser Basin.
The trail turned into a series of boardwalks. Glowing pools of blue water, clear water, hot steaming water, they were everywhere. They were like the pools we’d seen a day earlier, but these were comparatively huge in scale. The pools were framed with fragile walls of salts and minerals, slowly laid-down by evaporating water. I understood why they’d all been named.
The people were everywhere. But, they surprised me. I’d expected them to be wild, inconsiderate, noisy, pushing, irritating. They were none of that. They were kind, cordial, quiet, well-mannered… even nice to a smelly dirty creature like me. They stood on the boardwalks, pointing, whispering to their kids, thinking. Perhaps Yellowstone had worked some magic on them, consciously showed them there was more to the earth than what men had created. In Yellowstone that was blatant, it was obvious. I picked-up only one piece of trash in a pool – a tissue that had probably blown accidentally out of somebody’s hand. click to enlarge click to enlarge click to enlarge
The boardwalks and carefully placed trails continued. As we neared Old Faithful, more and more geysers appeared. Most were intricate sculptures of salts, some 10 feet high, deposited over thousands of years by the whims of the hot mineral water and the underground network of plumbing. In the distance, a couple geysers spewed steam, then stopped, some others started. A perplexing network of tunnels and vents crisscrossed underneath us, deep in the ground. Somewhere down there, the timing of the geysers was decided. As we neared Old Faithful itself, the famous geyser went off. Hundreds of people, sitting on benches 5 rows deep, ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaahed’ as the water shot skyward 50 feet or more. There were more people sitting there watching Old Faithful than I’d seen the entire summer, throughout the entire states of Montana and Idaho. Old Faithful was a full-fledged city, it had restaurants, hotels, grocery stores, housing, and lucky for us, a post office. click to enlarge
We headed over to the ranger station. We wanted to update our permits, add another day in Yellowstone, take it slower. John was already there, on the phone. We agreed to meet at the Old Faithful Inn. The Inn was a giant wooden structure, beams and staircases went this way and that, everything made of naked logs. The center of the building was all open. It was 4 stories high, plus more for an “attic” area – off limits since an earthquake a number of years ago. We found a couple chairs on a deck near the bar. I dried my ever-wet-with-morning-dew nylon things on the railing nearby. John showed up, he needed to join us as he didn’t have a permit. Ok. Old Faithful shot off in front of the Inn, “oooh”, “aaaah”. As we were leaving, Sunshine and Seehawk walked by… how we found each other amidst the throngs was a mystery. They didn’t have a permit, and needed to join us tomorrow as well. Ok.
The nearest place to camp near Old Faithful (well, the nearest that wasn’t full) was about 3 miles to the northeast. 3 miles out of our way. We hiked the short distance without too much thought, 3 miles was nothing. There, only 3 miles from the craziness of Old Faithful, we were completely alone. It was another isolated lake, another peaceful evening. I watched three red dragonflies battle each other for a prime perch – a small branch that hung over the water. Dragonflies were my favorite insect, by far.
We got down to Old Faithful again by 9AM. A quick stop to pick up more food at the post office, and we were again on our way, south.