I took my wildlife-loving family to Yellowstone this winter. My father loved the West, and I remember gaping at Old Faithful, sleeping in a tepee, and rafting down the Snake River when I was my daughters’ age. The park felt mystical and massive to me as a girl. But would it mean something else in this season and at this phase of my life? Now that I was mature enough to look closer, what might I observe and learn?
Carol Palmer/Courtesy Collette
Context matters. At our local zoo, Olivia and Sophia could never be bothered to stop and behold the bison as they toddled their way to see Jelly and Jam in the black bear exhibit. But here the bison marched freely through endless black-and-white landscape. It’s impossible not to appreciate the quiet confidence in their lumbering, the grace in how they swept the snow by swinging their cinder-block heads, and the good sense in how mother bison forged a single path for their offspring, and the rest of the herd, to follow. On this trip, when Olivia sees bison on the restaurant menu, she bursts into tears.
Renewal springs from the raw underbelly of loss. We drove past trees bending under the weight of fresh snow, like melted marshmallows, and I thought of the newscasters in 1988. “It’s a tragedy! The end of one of our national treasures,” they said, as behind them two thirds of the park burned in a monstrous summer blaze that resisted the efforts of 25,000 firefighters. Yet Yellowstone’s creatures have thrived in the years since. The Lamar Valley, with elk, moose, wolves, foxes, pronghorn, eagles, and hawks, is still America’s Serengeti. The land is healthier than ever. I saw the charred evidence of those fires, tall black trunks bearing witness to the half-size offspring growing beside them. Turns out, the ubiquitous lodgepole pine trees can reseed themselves only after fire. The ’88 “catastrophe” was just the facial the park needed.
Everything is moving, changing—always. The bubbling, gurgling, sighing, and steaming of the earth’s core happens right at the surface of Yellowstone. We watched the thermal springs sculpt the edges of the painted pots. I saw the aftermath of tectonic plates shaking and breaking, as they must when two indomitable forces push together. Rangers spoke of the tremors that rattle the land regularly. The molten lava hiding under the frozen surface is a useful metaphor for all of life’s tensions and transitions.
My family has traveled far and wide to see creatures that excite us—Thailand for my elephants, Grand Cayman for Sophia’s sea turtles, Costa Rica for Olivia’s eyelash pit vipers, and Alaska for Steve’s bears and salmon. But our winter week out West reminded me that the earth itself is a living, breathing organism, worthy of our interest and respect.
Fascinating Facts From my Collette Tour of Yellowstone:
1. Like a cave turned inside out, the colorful, steaming limestone terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs are one of 10,000 hydrothermal wonders in the park.
2. Bison are surprisingly agile, able to run as fast as 35 mph. Because tourists assume they are docile, bison cause far more injuries in Yellowstone than do any other species.
3. Ghost trees are covered not in snow but in rime frost, which forms when extremely cold water droplets freeze instantly on a cold surface.
Want to explore the beauty of the American West? Get more info about my travel experience to America’s Cowboy Country.