It is becoming a tradition of mine, this sunset walk. The light is soft, the air cool, and the boardwalks creak under the strain of our footsteps in the quiet of the gathering dusk.
This place is ever-enchanting, its colors always shifting and shading across the spectrum. Harsh light at midday penetrates deep within the pools to reveal the abyssal hues below while late sunbeams illuminate plumes of steam whose silhouettes dance before the darkening forest.
Old Faithful erupted not too long ago. Before that, Beehive Geyser sent a tower of boiling water two hundred feet into the Wyoming sky. No jets are issuing forth now, though. The Upper Geyser Basin, or at least what we can see of it, is resting. The pools and vents bubble away, water trickles down towards the Firehole River, and vapor rises into the cloudless expanse.
We are walking through the greatest concentration of geysers on the planet, powered by the massive plume of magma that lies somewhere below our feet. The Yellowstone hotspot has a tendency to produce staggeringly large eruptions, most notably 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago, and that's just in this area. Were we to drive back to our home in Bend via Idaho and the Snake River Plain, we'd roughly follow the track of the hotspot (or rather the continent over the hotspot; the hotspot itself is stationery) over the last few million years. All along the way it has done what it is doing here. Time has simply covered the most obvious tracks in the places that have passed by the hotspot, but there are clues to be found that hint at what once was just as there are clues here that tell the story of this supervolcano. We are, after all, in a caldera right now, the heart of a collapsed volcano. The caldera is 34 miles wide and 45 miles long so it can be hard to perceive its perimeter and area, but we are in it nonetheless. Ash from the formation of this caldera made it as far as Louisiana. Someday, Yellowstone will erupt again. Not just Old Faithful or Steamboat Geyser or Mammoth Hot Springs - the whole thing will go. Probably not today, though.
Daylight is making one last effort in the name of beauty. The geothermal hues are glowing beneath the boardwalk. Our day has been awash with color, from the pools of the West Thumb Geyser Basin to the multi-irised eye of Grand Prismatic Spring. So often, the colors we see in nature are the colors of the past, minerals revealed in rocks formed long ago. Here, though, are the colors of the present. These reds, yellows, oranges, and greens are pigments of life, the shades of thermophiles. These are microbial mats comprised of organisms who can survive where most other would perish. They thrive in the hot, acidic waters that issue forth, each color revealing a species designed for a particular range of temperatures. Life in Yellowstone is not confined to the typical, not limited to the coyotes whose yips ring in our ears or the lodgepole pines that surround us. The ground is alive with the vibrancy of creatures whose realities we can scarcely imagine, whose experience in this place is so incredibly different from our own.
The sun dips below the horizon at last. Another day ends in Wonderland. Dusk finds us sitting silently at the edge of another spring, gazing down at the inaccessible realm within. Rudyard Kipling came to this park back in its infancy and in his writings he captured a sentiment that I share in this moment. The thought was not his but rather that of a woman in his traveling party who remarked,
I've seen these geysers and hot springs before, but the idea still rings true. It's comforting to contemplate the grand history of this place, to know that this has been happening for ages and will carry on without me. Though he wasn't writing specifically about Yellowstone, Muir captured this thought in other words:
Throughout the night, the geysers will continue to vent and spew, the pools will bubble away, and the Firehole River will collect the runoff and carry it downstream. The colors of the thermophiles will be muted in the moonlight, but the organisms themselves will still be there, alive in the extreme. Perhaps no one will be here to witness what happens under the starry sky, but it will happen anyway.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer