We're somewhere out in the Yellowstone backcountry. It doesn't matter where. Every place doesn't need to be described by its coordinates.
There are geothermal areas that roads don't go to, basins with mudpots and hot springs and geysers that you have to work to see. Their perceived status as minor attractions, perhaps, by early park authorities has benefitted them in the long run. No parking lots here, no selfie sticks, no warning signs. It is wonderfully uncrowded, save for the bison.
We have been hiking for a good while to arrive at this spot. It was open grassland fringed by forest for the most part, with streams trickling down from the ridges and toads leaping away from our boots. Two times we abandoned the trail: once to circumvent a bison and once to stand right here. Before us is a wide break in the grass and woodland. No plants are growing down there. Lupine and paintbrush bloom at my feet, but their resplendent purples and reds are confined to the land that has soil, absent from the barren, cracked, and steaming earth downslope. Low, bubbling sounds pulse in the unseen depths of cauldrons nearby. Vapor dissipates above milky, turquoise pools and tinges of yellow in the crust on the opposite ridge corroborate the testimony on the air: the smell of sulphur.
While sitting in rare shade and admiring these features, we are interrupted. A lone bison has come over the ridge behind the little stand of trees in whose shadows we are resting. He's just 15 yards away. He must have heard our voices, must know we're here, but there's no need to stick around and confirm his apparent lack of aggression. We quickly pack up and move away, continuing our walk along the perimeter of the geothermal area, taking care to step where it's clear other bison have been before. If the ground supported them, it'll hopefully support us.
We've crossed to another ridge with a good view back to where we were. There's the bison, grazing in our shade. And here he comes, right down the game trail we just took to give him his distance. Apparently he has not been informed of our legal requirement to stay 25 yards away. He's just too curious.
On we go through the lodgepole, taking care to make noise and look ahead so we don't startle any other bison along the way. We look back and see our friend again. He's in no rush, ambling through the sparse woods. A plume of dust rises from behind a small stand of trees. Clearly he has availed himself of a dirt bath.
Later, we emerge from the forest and cross the creek that drains these hot springs. The water is surprisingly cool. The flowers are blooming here, too. They reach up towards the cloudless sky above, bathed in the sunlight that feeds them. The hillsides are void of trees, covered instead by green and gold stems of grass and dried disks left by those great grazers who have to be feeling a little overheated on this July afternoon. I'm feeling a little overheated, and I'm not covered in thick, dark fur. All the more reason to respect the bison: they are far tougher than I could ever dream of being.
Our steps parallel the creek, following the trickle as it grows to a more substantial stream thorough the contributions of smaller hot springs along the way. Atop a ridge where I can see the wide valley through which our "official" trail runs, the valley that will carry us back to the roads and the noise, I turn back once more to the land we're leaving behind, the uncrowded and unclouded basin where the supervolcano's work goes on unnoticed. There, on the path behind us, stands a bison. The bison? Is it the same one? Has he been following us this whole time? I can't say for sure, so I'll go with the romantic version of the story. It is our bison. He just wanted to make sure we got out okay, that we enjoyed our visit, and that we don't tell too many people precisely where we've been. He likes it uncrowded.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer