Yellowstone National Park protects itself in order to survive. Windows are provided to the 3 million annual visitors to view its grandure, but not necessarily to find its heart. I rode my motorcycle over nearly all of its 250 miles of paved roads for six days. I avoided bison walking down the road, glimpsed predators foraging for their next meal, was mesmorized by thermal activity, watched rivers roar by, gyesers reach to the sky, and lakes freeze all in a tie-dye of colors. Yet as my time progressed I felt like something was missing.
Subtly, and intentionally, the park service crams its tourists into as few areas as possible. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a park left to marvel in. It doesn’t feel like that as you move through it, with your eyes wide open and mouth agape as one-of-a-kind sites seamlessly appear for you. The clues to what else the park contains are subtle. It wasn’t until I looked beyond the figure 8 of the park roads and realized that most of the map was blank. The park sits on an active volcanic caldera and is constantly changing, how can those areas be blank?
I witnessed the changes in progress. I saw where the Orange Mound at Mammoth Springs was cooking the pavement from below and leaching chemicals onto the shoulder. The Mud Volcano near Fishing Village that used to throw mud into the the trees has now cooled to a steady gurgle. What about the daily struggle for survival by every plant and animal in the park? Fighting the tree next to you for that extra ray of sunshine. Catching the hare to give you the energy to do it again the next day. Or escaping to hope for the same outcome next time. That can’t be put down on a map.
I know the latter of those are there and feel there must be areas where florescent colored springs can be seen, and respected, without the walkways, barricades, and hoards separating me from the park. I read about a petrified forest on top of Specimen Ridge. Two days earlier I’d taken a turnoff near there for a petrified tree. From the parking lot you can see the tree trunk turned to stone surrounded by a 6 foot steel fence. Crowds march up the ramp barely glancing at the ancient tree before turning away to have their picture taken with the it and return to their car. I didn’t even get off my bike. Perhaps this forest frozen in time is what I was looking for?
Signing in at the trailhead no clues were offered about the forest. Nevertheless, I set off anxiously. Reaching a plateau time slowed with each lungful of thin air as I regained my breath. Birds flitted away from the path while pika chirped and dove into their holes as I went by. Pronghorn deer halfheartedly bounded away sensing I wasn’t a true threat and soon kept only one eye on me as I passed by at 20 yards.
A herd of 9 bison lay on the far side of a seasonal pond. One in the center rose as my silhouette grew on the horizon. The trail angled to the far side of the water and the sentinel had its back to me as I took a photograph. The park road and Tower Falls parking lot were visible behind me looking out of place as fresh, knee high, brush covered the mountain top prairie ahead.
Suddenly an animal cry similar to gurgling water interrupted my stride. It’s a sound I recognize, but can’t immediately place. “What is it”? My gaze rose spotting two ravens hovering above; one having given a warning call. “Did I surprise them” I wondered? Looking back down to see a wolfing staring at me on what had been an empty hillside.
In the split second it took for me to process the image of the wolf, a mere 40 yards away, it turned and trotted away. I hopped up on a rock watching it retreat and sat down to collect myself. Slowing my mind to appreciate how lucky I was for both the sighting and the instant outcome.
For an unknown reason I turned and spotted the wolf again, 90 degrees from where it had been. It began picking up speed running downhill, parallel to me, when suddenly a pronghorn behind it leapt to full speed on the same path. Her baby is below flashed through my mind as I headed for where the running had begun. Staying low to minimize distraction my head zipped back and forth looking for the chase and for a place to see it from. When I finally arrived and wheeled around to look for the action there was none. Three pronghorn grazed in the field below pausing to look up at me seemingly without a care in the world.
“Where did the wolf go”? It may as well have been a vision. Appearing only long enough to lead me along a path of discovery I longed to find.
Cresting the next rise, a new sanctuary arose. Grey and white elk antlers littered the field. Three here, four there, where they had spent the winter pawing through the snow covered grass away from cover for their hunters to hide in. Bison, elk, and pronghorn peppered the landscape in clusters as they have for ages. I didn’t have the nerve to disturb them and sat in the brush with only my head exposed watching them live their lives. Appreciating the serenity of the scene while realizing that it was not as permanent as it seemed.
I walked only 5 of the Yellowstone’s 1,000 backcountry miles. These are the places its secrets are hidden. Do your research, unlike me, to know what nooks and crannies to look in ahead of time. Perhaps your own moment of discovery will then appear, as mystically as my wolf. Leaving you simultaneously full of adrenaline and earily at peace, but most importantly, wondering when you can return to do it again.
The essence of Yellowstone still exists, but you have to search for it and hope that it will share its secrets with you. It wasn’t until I finished my hike that I realized there had been no sign of a petrified forest anywhere. An after thought at that point. I’d found what I was looking for.