My first recollection is the steam rising ominously from the surface, from the pools that weren’t visible from where I initially stood just before I started toward them.
I call them pools because at first glance, that’s what they looked like. Beautiful to look upon. Clear and strikingly blue.
They reminded me of the waters along the white-sand shores of the Bahamas, or in Crater Lake, the former volcano in Oregon that collapsed on itself once upon a time, and where fresh water continually forms from the annual snowfall. I thought of Crater Lake in particular not just because it too is a National Park, but because of its own volcanic history.
Of course, with respect to Yellowstone, that specific history is ongoing because the Yellowstone volcano is still very active. One need no further reminder of the fact than its many geysers, or the series of prismatic pools that I was currently facing that afternoon.
Yes they are beautiful, deceptively so. Look at them for long enough, and you might find yourself wanting to jump in as people have done in the past. Don’t be fooled by the undeniable beauty. Anyone who jumps in would get burned and the pain I suspect would be excruciating and ultimately fatal.
I couldn’t help but imagine the sirens of Greek mythology, who with their enchanting voices lure sailors to their own shipwrecked doom on the sirens’ rocky shores.
Yellowstone National Park stands atop an active super volcano, as it’s caldera mainly encompasses the perimeter of the park. Nearly all the park’s marvelous and most defining physical features–it’s geysers and springs–are owed to this continuing volcanic activity.
It’s an ominous fact, one that is admittedly hard to ignore. At least it is at first.
One might ultimately learn to surrender and embrace the sheer majesty of a place so unique and teeming with life, no matter how volatile the source of that life may seem, or how violent its natural history. Perspective, as ever remains a matter of choice. And if you choose to see it, you will find a precious and expansive wilderness home to a wide variety of wildlife iconic to the American west. The mighty buffalo–my personal favorite–along with the elk, the big-horned sheep, the wolves, the wolverine, the bobcats, coyotes, otters, badgers, mountain lions, and of course, those solitary kings of the mountain. The grizzly bear.
And that’s just the wildlife. Yellowstone offers one of the most incredible natural landscapes in all the world that includes a vast array of geysers, Yellowstone Lake, and another one of my personal favorites, that serenely beautiful waterfall cascading down the marvelous Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Back at Midway Geyser Basin, I continued along the path, past a few of the crystal-clear pools on the basin and towards a hulking mass of steam rising from the corner of the basin. People walked to and from it excitedly, and so I had a feeling that what I was approaching must be a well-known landmark, one of those many images I’d seen in posters and postcards over the years. After witnessing it myself, I’d make a point to remember it’s name. The Grand Prismatic Spring.
As we approached, the cloud of steam blew toward us like a dust storm, enveloping us to the point where we could only see a foot or two in front of us. For a moment it cleared and then thickened again. I could hardly see. I felt like I was walking through a cloud.
Still, the warmth felt nice, and was a welcome change to the chilly mountain air of the early afternoon. We continued as the steam began to clear again at random intervals, for short windows of time just long enough for me to get a glimpse of what stood before us. Something more beautiful than I could have imagined.
A shot of blue, then orange and then red too. A wondrous vision that I might have regarded as mere fantasy were I not catching my first glimpses of it right then and there. The bulk of steam cleared, and I saw it in full. The Grand Prismatic Spring.
I was acutely aware that I stood atop a volcano. Yet the recognition didn’t fill me with dread but sheer joy, with an impulse not to run away, but to stay and listen and feel. I stood beside the beating heart of the earth, at least that’s what I felt, as close to it’s core as I’d ever been and may ever be. It’s like I was watching and listening to it breathe.
I could easily see it as a threat to my own human existence, or I could view it for what it was. A natural part of the living, breathing planet that is my home. Our home. I was filled not with fear, but with gratitude. Gratitude that I lived here, and that I had the ability to do this. To see this.
It was just one of many moments where I acknowledged my thanks to the National Park Service merely for existing, for preserving and protecting places like this, for me and for past and future generations to enjoy. A remembrance made all the more potent as I stood beside this icon of the park service itself, of the American West, and of the natural world.
This beautiful world that is my home.