. . . the creator creates. Does he stoop, does he speak, does he save, succor, prevail? Maybe. But he creates; he creates everything and anything.
-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
It is 4:00 a.m. For the past hour, only the hallucinations have kept me on my toes. A horse bridled with Christmas lights appears and canters alongside the car. I have slowed to the speed of his gait; I consider his footing as we take corners. I’m lulled by the steady jing jing jing of his harness bells when he disappears from the side of the mountain. Down, window. The air is cool and thin. I breathe deeply.
We come to a switchback curve; there’s a clown in it, a mean-looking clown with a nasty smile. He peeks through the brush. When the road straightens I’m afraid to check the side- or rearview mirrors in case I should see his white hands and bright hair, in case he’s there, tangled with Christmas lights, running at the window.
In a hairpin turn I narrowly miss hitting the clown. Chicken wakes as we sweep through a pass and leans out her window, marveling, oblivious, admiring scent, season, Alpha Centauri. The sound of her voice brings Sinead to her headrest. She snatches Sinead up like a towel to wring and nibbles her underside, snorting. The mountain looms, its shape told in great missing hunks of starred sky. The sum effect of night and rock and Milky Way is severe, disruptive. I cower behind the windshield.
The clown darts around.
In this way the four of us arrive at an abandoned gate: Welcome to Yellowstone National Park. 15 MPH. Please Do Not Feed the Wildlife. The road is about wide enough for a motorcycle and runs along the World’s Edge. We twist through the woods, come to a tight corner, and splash promptly into a dense, bright fog, cool and swirling and settling impenetrably until I can’t see the end of the hood.
We roll to a stop. I turn off the headlights and, in a minute, the motor. Sinead stands alertly on Chicken’s knee. I can feel the fog move over us in the darkness, loamy and damp; far into the trees something is dripping. It feels like we’ve breached not a pocket of fog in a windless valley, but . . . some other kind of pocket.
I doze. All the lights come on in my head: I find I have an aerial view of the car; there, the clown stealthily approaches. Where’d he come from anyway, like some haunted carousel version of Puck? He wields a twisted black claw, a flaying tool, a shining machete. His red shoes make no sound. He comes and comes, never quite reaching my window, always just arriving at the rear bumper, the front bumper, over and over, claw and machete and flensing sword aloft in an attitude of menace, toothless red mouth open wide, with a fistful of strobing lights. He is soundless but appears to laugh, silent and horrific, eyes lucid and blue. He is malevolent, insane. He is alternately left- and right-handed; his hair has begun to grow.
Hey, he says in Chicken’s voice, right next to me, as his hair spools out.
I start. The real Chicken prods my knee.
I felt a breeze, she says. Turn on the lights.
The dash clock says 4:48. I hit the lamps. The whiteness rolls; I start the car and we inch forward, foot by foot. The fog ends abruptly, and we are out on the clear side, back in the dark.
The forest here is hung with vines and grows right to the road. From all sides comes a sensation of height, the soundless vault of a cathedral. Soon the road widens, by inches, then a foot. I’m accelerating to thirty miles an hour, energized, when a dark shape bursts free of the ground and crashes through the trees into the road. I yell, standing on the brake. In the redness of the taillights I catch a glimpse of a bounding, long-legged shape. In a moment the pound of hoof beats recedes. The quiet resettles. We gather the blown strings of our hearts.
Yellowstone is clearly not to be trusted.
Chicken turns the dome light on to read from the map. After a few minutes she says, We’re about twenty-five miles from the hotel.
intersection right here pretty soon, no more than four miles, and there we turn north, and from there it’s ten or twelve miles to the next crossroad, then west there and follow the little curvy road right to the hotel, like, another ten miles. See.
Twenty-five miles of driving inside the park? From the gate?
I guess it’s a big park.
How far have we come?
She hovers over the map then looks sheepishly, wanly, up at me.
The sixth is a preciously uneventful mile, and then the problem is a rickety, white-slat bridge. More fog rolls around it, both beneath and astride. We can’t see across. The forest has been pulling away from the road for a while; I’m suspicious of the feeling of space left behind. This bridge really doesn’t look safe, so we consider our options: risk passage or turn back and take our chances with the beasts, the mist, the lunatic Puck-thing and the World’s Edge?
The bridge holds. It’s a bit wider than it looked at first. Near the middle when the ends are dark and buried in that curious switch-tail fog, the faraway sound of a waterfall drifts in. We cross without incident. Soon we find our first turn and take it with much shrill fanfare; I holler through my window in especial effort to frighten the wildlife.
Now, leg two. Twelve miles.
We make almost two.
What’s that smell?
Unlike the brick-wall fog, the odor has crept up discreetly. I realize I’ve been ignoring it for a while.
Smells like sulfur.
It’s awful. In another mile even windows uprolled do no good; the smell wafts through the vents. With the vents closed, the stench penetrates glass, metal, skin and sense and bone, so putrid that I bristle—offended not only that such a stink should be, but that I should possess the biology to suffer it. This place is a spectre like a daisy-haired hippie, tripping and oblivious, revealing her painted breasts. The blood-mouthed clown materializes on the hood of the car and spits at the windshield. I see he’s now sporting a few bad teeth. My brain curdles. I’m no match for him. The sky whirls. I wonder if it’s possible to turn around on this skinny little road, if I could survive the mountains again. Puck disappears and reappears clinging to a tree, dry heaving, hair blowing in a foul wind like something out of Maurice Sendak, or Dante.
* * *
We make it to the hotel, no memory of how. At 10:30 the next morning we wake, insane but rested. We take turns rat-sitting and showering; I take Sinead’s picture, tickle her, kiss her, bite her feet and her tail. Rat girl, rat girl! We shmoo into her pointed face. She grabs a lip gently.
We pack the car and hit Yellowstone whooping. Up the road at a rustic-looking general store I find Yellowstone: A Complete Guide to Planning Your Stay. It has a better map with cartoon waterfalls and geysers and prong-headed animals. I take our map to the parking lot and give it a happy kick. Chicken shreds it. While we hunch over the booklet comparing destinations, Sinead stands on Chicken’s shoulder chewing a potato chip.
Mammoth Hot Springs! That sounds good.
What about Paint Pots . . . oooh or Fire Basin . . . or wow Circe’s Boudoir . . .
Just drive, says Chicken.
The sky is alpine blue; everything shines. We roll down the windows to let in green forest shadows. We drive a little but when we reach a turnout so full of cars I’d just as soon pass it up, Chicken wants a look.
The viewing platform—a railed, wooden deck—empties as we approach. Everywhere are signs commanding Do Not Leave the Trail. There’s a distant rumble. Once we’re on the deck its opposite side comes into view, the wilderness falls back, and I see.
Our platform juts hundreds of feet over a frothing river, over a plunging stone canyon bristling with trees and violent angles of rock. To the east an immense waterfall spills, thundering, in slow motion, shrouded with mist and rainbows and thrown sun. The platform vibrates. This is the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, 308 feet high; from a quarter of a mile away it is captivating, it is stunning, and it is terrifying.
* * *
We investigate a patch of smoking ground. The mud is strangely soft, slippery in the mud way, but different, too; it’s the mineral content of the soil and the water. The signs telling us not to do what we’re doing are everywhere. We ignore them. The floating steam is surreal, the day has grown chilly, and the water is lovely and unusual and warm.
The thermal features at Yellowstone and the surrounding area exist because molten rock lies so close to the surface—three miles down. The park is on the site of a dormant hot spot volcano with some 10,000 geothermal features—geysers and boiling paint pots, hot springs and fumaroles, in a massive plumbing network over the magma. This is Earth breathing, heating and expanding and blowing and refilling from a fantastic system of chambers. It is the main attraction at Yellowstone. The Colorado, Columbia, and Missouri river systems originate here, and the hydrothermics span well outside the boundaries of the park.
I’m standing in steaming water halfway to my knees. Danger! signs surround me. The water seems hotter the further in I wade, perhaps because it’s a bit deeper and the air is so chilly. In the center of this shallow pool the clay begins to give strangely, suddenly, without warning. I find I’m locked into it, five inches and sinking; water rises around my knees. It’s surprisingly hot. So is the mud.
I pull at a leg. As I tug I drive the other in deeper. I plant the right foot back in, pull at the hot left. Squish, the right’s stuck.
Here comes Chicken, looking irritated.
Get out of there.
Slurp. There’s a Danger! sign right in front of me. I sure see it clearly now.
Get out. Give me your hand.
Don’t come in here! But she’s in and then she’s got me, she jerks like a bastard and I lurch, nearly falling over but freeing myself. We splash out, squishing and sucking. On the grass I step carefully. Some sourpuss lady gives us a disapproving glare. Chicken sticks her tongue out.
Are you okay, jackass? She pokes my red calves.
I’m covered with mud. A guy with a big beard is watching us. Everything all right? he calls.
We’re okay, thanks.
Hot in there. He pets his beard.
Yeah. “Danger.” He laughs and waves. We climb into the car. The disapproving lady is toeing the water. I hope she goes wading. Sinead tastes the clay while I change. There’s even clay in my hair.
Troublemaker, says Chicken.
It’s raining a little at Mammoth Hot Springs, a flowing limestone place, weird and billowing and globular. We’re attracted to the ethereal formations, but stick to the path. It feels ghostly: acres of brown ground, snap-dead trees, and fragile white bubbles, eerie, a bit mournful. We take pictures. At the Artist’s Paint Pots (supervised), the sun comes out again. Mazes of wooden walkways weave among pits of bright goo, pastel blues and pinks and every shade of white and grey mud, glubbing. Their edges dry like eggshells.
By the end of the day we’ve seen the majestic Hayden valley, where the Yellowstone River flows, the Biscuit Basin Loop Trail, Grand Prismatic Spring, the rainbow-rimmed waters of Morning Glory Pool, and all manner of flora and fauna. I’ve been charmed by pronghorn antelope, lodgepole pine, Wyoming paintbrush, phlox, sedge, quaking aspen, sub-alpine fir and my favorite, yellow monkey flower, which thrives on hydrothermic channel runoff. We’ve been warned against feeding the black bears (which may be brown or blonde), and against surprising a grizzly (females with cubs and bears with carrion are to be feared); we’ve been instructed on how to identify bear scat. Year-round dangers at Yellowstone include hypothermia, giardiasis, falling trees, blisters, lightning strike, scalding water, toxic mushrooms, and the nefarious water hemlock plant, an extract of which is thought to have killed Socrates. Water hemlock attacks the nervous system and causes convulsions and a bright green frothing from the mouth, nostrils, and sometimes eyes and ears, which may continue long after death.
My God, what a place.
Here is Creation authentic, effortless with majesty, swallowing the efforts of men whole: rainbow-rimmed springs and pools and lank coyotes and bald eagles and 308-foot waterfall and a ghost town made of stone and paint pots and unearthly mists and even the immeasurable stink, to which we’ve contributed guardrails and boardwalks and outhouses. Fine example I am, anyway, stomping around in a hot spring like I owned the joint. This is holy ground. Its dignity ought not be subdued like a predator in a circus outfit.
* * *
Twilight. We’re spent and hungry. Last stop: Old Faithful. Old Faithful has blown her lid about every 94 minutes. We wait for the next blast with a crowd of about two hundred. When the geyser spouts, its water and wind smell dark and clean and deep, like the earth they’ve been running through.
The burst lasts five minutes. The mist that flies during Old Faithful’s eruption is cool. I inhale deeply, trying to catch particles of the blast from the air, lodge a few in my lungs to metastasize microscopic spouts that will splash the insides of my cells.
The tower of water weakens, drops, finally ceases. Immediately the crowd turns and moves toward the parking lot. A silence follows; Old Faithful has a voice.
Behind us Creation speaks for Itself, says anything goes, seeps heat and blue mud and yellow monkey flowers. Yellowstone marks a site of rivering magma, the viscous, glugging pulse of rock. Here’s a patch of land upon a lake of fire, cooling and sprouting, with heat creatures and weird fever, inveigling by stink and fog and motley hocus.
Chicken and I sit, watching where the eruption was. In a few minutes we’re the only ones left.