Some years ago, I received a guide booklet to a dozen national parks produced by the editors of Outside magazine. Outside was, at least in the late 1990s, an exceptionally well-crafted magazine, with a number of interesting articles in each issue. Eventually, though, the magazine’s persistent and annoying tone of extreme-outdoorism snobbery got to me, and I dropped the subscription.
Its editorial subtext seemed to be that if you don’t want to ride your $10,000 bicycle across Canada, then swim Hudson Bay, then go parasailing on Baffin Island -- all financed by product endorsements for your equipment, which, with great business savvy back in civilization, you arranged -- well, you might as well get on a tour bus with the other sheep. You can’t possibly appreciate the outdoors in any authentic way.
The same spirit infused the guide to the national parks. There was a short description of each park, with a basic map, and two other sections: What Most People Do, and What You Should Do. There’s some truth to that division, and I’m sure that in many ways, spending a week backcountry in Yellowstone is life-enhancing in ways that you can’t get otherwise. The element of snobbery comes in assuming that’s the only way to appreciate the place.
We did what most people do: we drove on Yellowstone’s roads, got out of the car periodically, walked around and saw things. With two little kids to accommodate, that’s the way to do it. I defy anyone to tell me I didn’t see remarkable things in a memorable setting, things that made me marvel at the variety of the natural world. It isn’t something I do all that often, though maybe I should. Yellowstone is a place for that kind of inspiration.
For instance, I’d never seen anything like the Norris geyser field. Little holes bubbling and burping and hissing. Heat from the sun above, and the ground below. The persistent stink of sulfur, which somehow didn’t bother me that much. Pretty little rivulets, shiny with mineral deposits, but so hot that you’d be boiled alive by them, or have your skin eaten off by high acidic content. Signs warning you do stay on the trail, or risk death (and who dared put the signs there?).
Even with my little geologic knowledge, the geysers fostered the sense that just under the surface, just below my feet and the wooden plank walking paths and the park building with educational exhibits and the parking lots and even the tour buses, there’s a dark monster, magma born, called the Yellowstone Caldera. What we see are flakes from the monster’s skin.