By David Feela
Ah, Yellowstone! Though I hadn’t been there since 1965, the excitement of having once visited stays with me. The geyser, yeah, I saw that, and my father took pictures of me beside various rocks and trees, but what I remember most, much to his chagrin, was discovering a fondness for a girl who stayed with her parents at the Old Faithful Inn where we were registered, the first girl I’d ever felt that way about.
Hormonally speaking, I’d probably reached the age when mating matters, and since then — according to my own park version of a Kinsey Report — every 92 minutes or so I think about Yellowstone.
I can’t remember the girl’s name, but I know we corresponded for a short time after returning from our family vacations, and I know this because my father fumed, calling me “girl-crazy” while my siblings teased me about the experience, and teasing also stays with you. One of us eventually stopped writing, and that was that.
So I don’t know what got into me, deciding to take a trip to Yellowstone nearly a half-century after that seminal experience. Perhaps with my hormonal levels finally adjusted, I began to wonder about all the natural beauty I missed at the fourth most visited national park in the nation.
Technically, an “old flame” is still at the bottom of it, but now a fumarole would be more specific; basically, an opening in the surface of the earth’s crust associated with volcanic lesions that emit various gases and steam. Yellowstone is still breathing heavily like the rest of us, though earthly respiration is more often associated with earthquake disaster. I don’t know why it’s not equated with love, because no matter how the earth moves, it moves.
Yellowstone — established in 1872 — is thought to be the first national park on the planet earth, and certainly the first in America. In my mind it’s the equivalent of Eden, which has been closed to mortals since shortly after genesis. How the National Park Service manages to cram nearly 4 million annual visitors into its boundaries without destroying the place is the result of an eternal wrestling match between omnipotence and federal government.
The time of year turned out to be perfect for my visit. Although most of the facilities, including two access roads, had already been closed, nature left plenty to see. I hiked among the Artists Paintpots, listened to Roaring Mountain, and marveled at the veils of steam rising from the shores of Yellowstone Lake. I wasn’t alone, especially when I arrived at the infamous Old Faithful Geyser. The majority of God’s creatures I did meet had two legs.
I toured the park for several days, long enough to learn that when coming upon a clutch of vehicles pulled carelessly off to the shoulder on both sides of the road, it didn’t mean there had been a car accident. Instead, it meant genuine wildlife had been sighted, an opportunity for the public to point their Canons and shoot.
The Old Faithful Inn remained true, located just kitty-corner from the old Geezer, but what surprised me was how I caught myself marveling at the gargantuan stone fireplace, the tiered interior balconies railed by skinned and polished tree limbs, and the general rustic Davy Crockett style of the place, as if I’d never seen it before. Clearly, my 12-year-old brain had been mush, and my memory had rebelled against filing these images away for future reference. I’d become a tourist in my own history.
One other detail I rediscovered involved my first train ride. The Northern Pacific Railway, now served by Amtrak, provided service to Yellowstone in the mid-1960s and my father must have purchased passage on that railway to take his family for summer vacation. Something about Yellowstone in my brain has always been associated with trains. My visit prompted a very distinct image of a VistaDome car, where passengers could view a 360-degree panorama of countryside as the train traveled west.
I also learned that the railway was first headquartered in Brainerd, Minn., the town where I was born. All this information would have been useless to me back then, but now it gushed out of my mental landscape like its namesake, Old Faithful.
I should mention the other fact: catastrophic volcanic eruptions occurred at Yellowstone over 2 million years ago, and again 1.2 million years ago, then 600,000 years ago, and once more in the summer of 1965.
Geologists will not confirm the last eruption, but that’s what I’m saying: the earth moves in subtle ways.
David Feela writes from Cortez, Colo.