A journalist's guide to the
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - Its quite fashionable in these parts to turn our noses up to the crowded roads and features of Yellowstone National Park during the peak tourist seasons of July and August.
Those of us who live in the states surrounding the great park derive great pleasure in explaining to ourselves and our summer visitors how we loath the Winnebago and binocular set that migrates into our backyard wonderland soon after the snow melts under the fire blackened forest. It's our own summer past time, as predictable as highway construction on our own favorite shortcut.
I'm as guilty as anyone. We decry the commercialization of nature's sacred temple. We feel sorry for the wild animals that must suffer the foolishness of a thousand video-toting visitors. We also justifiably worry about the effects of three million visitors on this 3,472 square miles of Rocky Mountain splendor. Even though the majority stick to the 370 miles of paved roads, the belching tail pipes of buses and automobiles and the mountains of garbage and sewage they leave here presents a threat to the integrity of Yellowstone's intricate web of creation.
Our snobbish elitism clouds Yellowstone's true attraction. Our proximity has masked the great power of America's "first and best" national park.
More than any other natural area, Yellowstone is the people's park. It is the political, natural and emotional manifestation of our greatness as a country. The American West was not yet tamed when Congress set aside this huge patch of wilderness as the world's first park in 1872. It was the ultimate act of self assurance. We knew who we were and we knew where we were going enough to set aside some place to remember where we came from.
Yellowstone looms larger in the American mind than even its vast forests, mountains, range and waters. No where is this more apparent than at Old Faithful.
The smoky crater is surrounded by boardwalks, hotels, camera shops, ice cream stands and acres of paved parking lots. Still these symbols of American materialism can't overwhelm the majestic icon when its column of boiling water rises 180 feet. It's a scene, as breathtaking as the sight of an soaring bald eagle and as powerful as the haunting sound of taps on Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery.
Americans don't visit Old Faithful. They make a pilgrimage.
A poll conducted several years ago by MasterCard found that 25 percent of American adults traveled to Yellowstone sometime in their lives. They shared in a ritual that like baseball is uniquely American, but now shared by people from around the world.
The multitude starts to fill the benches surrounding the geyser about 20 minutes after the last eruption. Since the intervals today average about 80 minutes, the early birds have a long wait, entertained by the preening squirrels and marmots that hang around the boardwalk. The predicted time of next eruption is posted throughout the area. Still the most asked question remains: "When will IT erupt again?"
As the moment of truth nears, the masses gather, crowding themselves in the central western edge so they can see Old Faithful through their eyes with the same backdrop they recognize in their minds.
When it finally surges out of the earth they react as Americans always have.
"All welcome the show with enthusiasm, and shout 'Oh, how wonderful, beautiful, splendid, majestic!," wrote naturalist John Muir in 1901 after a trip to the geyser basin.
As the sulfurous outburst subsides the rabble begins to break up. The throng of up to a thousand onlookers stream away like the audience of a movie during the credits, often with the caldron still splashing.
Despite its mythic hold on the American soul, Old Faithful is neither old nor perhaps faithful. Scientists suspect it is less than 300 years old and note that with each major earthquake its eruption intervals have steady risen during the past 36 years. The complicated plumbing system that results in geysers are delicate and both men and nature can end their miracle abruptly.
Eventually, Old Faithful may sharply change its interval or even quit. Then perhaps other famous geysers will take its place as the top attraction.
As long as there is a Yellowstone Park, there will be a national vision quest to its sanctified land. The rituals may change, but Yellowstone will remain intertwined in the national spirit as long as we are a nation.