Friday, August 10, 2018

A Grand Resting Place

On a backpacking trip, I have come to a complete stop with Mary—my wife and adventure partner—at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Our campsite sits on a private bench about the size of a football field and forty feet above the river. From the site, we can stroll down a gentle trail to the Yellowstone River where an intimate white gravel beach awaits, both ends guarded by active--and impassible--thermal features.

We are on that beach and will sit here all day. I will journal. Every hour or so I’ll photograph, hoping to capture the color changes created by a mesmerizing blend of sun and clouds. Mary has nestled into a spot where previous visitors have built low backrests with river rock.  She is soaking in the river an ankle that she twisted a week ago on another hike. We hope that a couple of days of river therapy will make the five-mile hike up and out of here less painful than the trek in.

While she soaks, I take in this ancient thermal basin sliced by a river. I am spellbound by the morning sun sparkling on water and by the towering canyon walls, variegated with brilliant green, yellow, and orange.

A spot midway between Mary and the runoff from a bubbling thermal feature calls me. I drift over, throw off my clothes, and wade into the river. I splash my face, arms, and chest in the shocking-cold water. Though our rule of thumb is to never turn down a dip in a pristine river while backpacking, I'm not yet ready to plunge into this river we’ve come to know and love over the years.

The Yellowstone River, 692 miles long and every inch undammed, begins on the Continental Divide south of the park and snakes through the Thorofare in the park’s southeastern corner. It feeds Yellowstone Lake and is the lake’s only outlet. It broadens through wildlife-rich Hayden Valley, gathers speed, drops over the picturesque Upper and Lower Falls, and rushes into this Grand Canyon that it has cut over millennia. Within that twenty-four-mile-long canyon we sit, insignificant next to the 1,200-foot-high multi-colored walls.

Delighted to be here, I step from the river and settle onto the gravel to observe, photograph, and journal.

10:30 a.m., 84 degrees

A bee lands on the page. We stare at each other as he makes his way along a sentence—past the subject, over the verb, and onto an adverb. If he’s an editor, then he’s the enemy of honest journalling. I bend forward and gently blow the bee off the page. He buzzes away in Mary’s direction.

From my right comes the constant rumble of a thermal feature: sulfur-scented steam billows from two dinner-plate-sized holes in the river bank. Below those openings, steaming water flows to the Yellowstone. I stand, walk to where the river receives the runoff, and step in. “Hey,” I yell to Mary, “there’s warm water here if you want it for your ankle.”

She points to her own sweet mix, laughs, and shouts back, "Hot water! I can't believe it. This place has everything a girl could want." I grin as she dowses herself in the therapeutic mixture.

1:45 p.m., 88 degrees

The sun hangs high in a cloudless southern sky. Strong, vertical sunlight washes out some of the green, orange, and yellow in the canyon walls. Shadows from small clusters of trees along the river bank add new color to the changing tapestry.

A dry, warm wind rustles downstream, rippling the river’s surface and scattering the sun's diamonds. A grasshopper flies by leaving CLACKETY, CLACKETY, CLACKETY dangling in its wake. Having sat unencumbered for a few hours, I reach out to feel the clothes I scoured in the river an hour ago. Bone dry. I pull on the protection of long pants, long sleeved shirt, and a hat.

2:30 p.m., 90 degrees

The summer sun, unfiltered by clouds, bears down. When I face upriver, the wind threatens to steal my hat. As I tug on the brim, a bright red dragonfly buzzes by, dipping and rising, inspecting the beach home we share. As it flits away, I listen to the canyon's chorus: the rustling of wind in the trees and lapping of water on the bank. I feel the magic of solitude and stillness.

3:45 p.m., 90 degrees

Mary and I awaken from a nap, having sprawled on the coarse, white gravel, fully dressed, shoulders touching, drugged by the touch of the heat and the whisper of the river. Shadows have lengthened on the cliff across the river. I sit up and study three seedlings, each perhaps two feet tall and growing straight and true from a forty-five-degree slope. I marvel at their will to live.

Shading my eyes, I stare skyward and discover clouds, some in the shape of a giant horsetail. Others are thicker and taller, sails on a pirate ship, moving east, high above the canyon. A cricket chirps unseen from the cool shade of a nearby boulder. A duck, wings whooshing, zips upstream, barely a foot above the river. What’s the rush?

Lounging here all day embodies the travel philosophy Mary and I have grown into over the years: the slower you go, the more you see. When driving a car, a mile can zip by in about a minute. If riding a bicycle, a mile rolls by in four or five. But as we hike in the backcountry, a mile takes thirty minutes and even that can feel too fast.

5:05 p.m., 88 degrees

The clouds have unionized. No longer separate little puffs, they have banded together, flexing billowing muscles, forming thick masses with battleship-gray bottoms and few breaks of blue. They cover more than half the sky and drift slowly eastward, resisting the wind, demanding more time to block the sun.

The clouds diffuse the light and the river turns a darker green, creeps toward ominous. But the green, yellow, and orange of the opposite bank grow richer, revealing layers, striations hidden until the light of now. What is the story behind the flows that dumped these colorful deposits again and again?

6:00 p.m., 84 degrees

There is so much to learn. So much to see, hear, taste, smell, feel. What I don't know about this place—this short segment of a grand canyon—fills volumes. The little I do know fills my senses and my heart.

After a day of sitting with the Yellowstone River, I decide that if I had the good fortune to choose the place where I could die, this is it: lying beside cool green water on coarse white gravel, listening to the wind and the rumble of thermal features, inhaling the pungent smell of sulfur one last time, and then letting go, exhaling, my long last breath moving downstream with the wind and water.

[This post based on a chapter from the award-winning Deep into Yellowstone.]

Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed from me, or unsigned on Amazon. 

My other best seller, In the Temple of Wolves, is available signed, or unsigned.

signed set of both is available with free shipping.

A signed copy of my newest book, The Wilds of Aging: A Journey of Heart and Mind can be reserved

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