Dispatch: American Safari in Yellowstone
I’m not a country counter, but I have had the good fortune of being able to visit many of the most exotic places in the world. I’ve been to Antarctica; seen glaciers in Patagonia and Alaska; seen Iguazu Falls and Victoria Falls, watched my back for crocodiles in Arnhemland at the Top End of the Australian Outback and gone on many safaris in different parts of Africa. I don’t say this to toot my horn, but only to set up a frame of reference for a discussion of the exotic.
I recognize that the word “exotic” is subjective, relative to an individual’s experience. But I have been to many of the places that most Americans would consider exotic, and when I was in Yellowstone last week I found myself proclaiming to myself that I have never been in a more exotic place in my life.
The fact that it’s within the United States' Lower 48, and only a couple of states over from where I grew up, has nothing to do with it. The fact remains that when I was participating in the Tauck Winter in Yellowstone tour last week, I felt as remote from my customary frame of reference as I ever have.
I’ve been trying to get my mind around it ever since, and I must accept that I will never fully assimilate all that I experienced on that trip. It’s too big. I remain in a state of wonder.
It is not a new concept to me that the United States contains vast reaches that I would consider exotic. I have seen many places in the U.S., even places that have no names and are not noted as anything in particular, that are breathtakingly beautiful, that would and should be considered exotic to billions of people around the world.
But even from that perspective, it was striking to me last week to hear myself saying to myself that I was standing in a place as exotic as it was possible to be in.
I went to Antarctica because I thought it was the closest thing to interplanetary travel that I would probably experience in my lifetime. There in the austral summer in January you have the very strange effect of the days that never end, that just sort of waver and modulate across the hours as the sun moves around in the sky but never really goes away. You have mountainous icebergs, iridescent with crystal blue light, gravelly land with no soil, craggy black mountains draped with pure white snow.
And even with that experience to draw on, I can say that Yellowstone was as exotic and moving as the experience of Antarctica. At a certain height of sublimity, comparisons are odious. But I stick to my claim: no place could be more exotic than what I experienced in Yellowstone.
Silence and Solitude
A good part of what made the experience so jarringly exotic was the fact that we went in winter. Because of relatively extreme weather conditions, the area is much less accessible to visitors in the winter, and there are few. The National Parks Service puts the number of visitors at 4 million, but it’s almost all in the summer months. In June and July the park receives more than 700,000 visitors each month. From November to April only a trickle of visitors enter. Only 1 percent of the park’s visitors come in January.
In the winter it is a world of snow. When you are at Yellowstone you are on an icy rooftop of America, way up in the Rocky Mountains. The Yellowstone Plateau is said to have an average elevation of 8,000 feet, surrounded by mountains that range from 9,000 to 11,000 feet in height.
Those are only numbers, but when you are there the altitude is an essential part of the environment, as is its effect on you. I found that when I walked up a number of stairs that would not faze me at sea level, my breathing started to become labored. I would feel the muscles of my legs complaining about the lack of oxygen.
The air was palpably dry, feeling almost as though it was vigorously sucking the moisture out of me. I washed a t-shirt and hung it over the shower curtain rail and when I returned after a few hours it felt almost as though it had been in a dryer.
The sight of the mountains produces a kind of feeling that can’t be described. But most anyone who has seen mountains from relatively close up knows that mountains move people. Mountains have always figured into spiritual traditions. There are certainly kinds of energies that collect at mountaintops that we may not be able to name or isolate scientifically, but that a person can nonetheless feel. How can you describe the large feeling that washes over you when you stare at a mountaintop?
These mountains are even more imposing and magnificent in winter than in summer. It’s not only because there are fewer people around, though that is undeniably part of it. The great silence of winter, the power of nature that sings out to you, the weather elements that you must respect because if you don’t, they may kill you.
The morning of the day we drove into Lamar Valley, it had been 17 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, according to the woman at the shop at the station there. At that temperature you may be able to walk outside without a coat for a few minutes. But if you were to try to go very far in those conditions you might end up like the character in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” a human popsicle.
The snow was measured in feet in many of the places. If you didn’t know how to handle yourself, you could fall through. You might not even be able to extricate yourself. This is nature, and if you don’t show the proper respect it can be lethal.
The raw power of nature comes through more dominantly in winter, and a far smaller number of people are willing to try to tangle with winter conditions. But it makes the park that much quieter, less inhabited by humans. And that gives the animals more freedom and dominion.
Completely independent of the number of visitors is just the sight of the mountains in winter when they are blanketed with snow. The contrast between the white snow and darker patches makes the grand contours of the mountain peaks stand out starkly. The sight is jarring. It’s really too much for a person to take in. You have to just shake your head and take a deep breath of humility.
Only the Beginning
How can you say the mountains are only the beginning? It defies logic, but what I mean to say is we have only begun to discuss what is so great about the park in winter. This particular tour was part of Tauck’s Ken Burns American Journeys series, and part of the program included the showing of a series of film vignettes made by Tauck in partnership with Ken Burns and his historian/writer partner Dayton Duncan.
READ MORE: Ken Burns’ Long Conversation with America
In that series Duncan, an avid lover and student of the parks for decades, explains eloquently many of the ways Yellowstone is even more spectacular and stirring in winter than in summer. The geysers, the thermal activity, the hot gases and liquids belching forth from the volcano that underlies Yellowstone, are even more spectacular in winter because the meeting of the hot eruptions with the cold surface air makes them steam even more than in summer. The vapors hang in the air with more density.
The thermal activity of Yellowstone is a huge story by itself, and it’s reason enough to visit Yellowstone. It’s the most thermally active place on earth. The thermal activity emanating from lava under the ground produces a wide variety of surface phenomena that look like fascinating sci-fi portrayals of distant planets.
Civilization in Perspective
And all of the aforesaid is not to even mention the wildlife, which is arguably Yellowstone’s best attraction. The European colonization of America has so transformed the landscape and pushed so many animals away that it is almost surprising to confront the health and well-being of the wildlife in Yellowstone, and to realize what great wildlife we still have in North America.
One of our guides told us Yellowstone has “three cats and three dogs.” The cats are bobcats, lynx and mountain lions aka cougars or puma. On the dog side there are foxes, coyotes and wolves. Yellowstone also has grizzly bears and black bears, though they hibernate in the winter and we didn’t see any. There were rumors that some had been spotted recently, out from hibernation early because they, like everything else, are being affected by the warming of the climate.
And there are many elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, otters, gigantic moose and the noble bison, or American buffalo. These wondrous animals are able to make Yellowstone their home almost as if the colonization and industrialization of America had never happened. It’s a euphoric feeling to experience an environment where these animals can live as they always have.
It puts our little civilization in perspective.
In one of the Tauck films focusing on Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan and the National Parks, Burns talked of how they used a quote from John Muir to open their film series on the National Parks. The quote asserts that the morning of creation is still with us. The earth is still undergoing the act of creation.
“Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us,” wrote Muir, “every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants — coarse boulders and gravel for forests, finer soil for grasses and flowers — while the finest part of the grist, seen hastening out to sea in the draining streams, is being stored away in darkness and builded particle on particle, cementing and crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains of other predestined landscapes, to be followed by still others in endless rhythm and beauty.”
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