Rocky Mountain, Brights and Darks


By Andrew Belonsky

Eight months after giving up booze, the writer finds himself in his innocence's final frontier.

Old Faithful's visitor's center looks like a mega church devoted to nature. Its raked peak, designed to repel heavy snow, resembles a steeple and massive windows emit a soft, white light, radiating an orchestrated serenity typically reserved for places of worship. This is an aesthetic apropos for the building's deity, Old Faithful, a natural mecca that attracts about 30,000 visitors each summer. There are only four of us there this January night. We're led past the center/shrine and toward the actual geyser, back in the blackness by Kurt Johnson, Spring Creek's resident naturalist and the author of the 2013 Field Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Like Price, Johnson moved to Jackson Hole from back east, in his case Northern Virginia. Both of his parents were teachers and Johnson, 40, inherited their talent for and love of sharing knowledge. He's a thoughtful, gentle man with deep blue eyes and a dry but accessible sense of humor. He swears more gullible city slickers believe him when he deadpans that an animal track belongs to a rabid, blood-thirsty coyote. As we approach Old Faithful, I mutter something obvious about the attraction's ejaculative qualities lending themselves to virile masculinity. Johnson considers my remark for a moment and replies, "I don't think Old Faithful has a gender identity."

The stars above are obscured as the clouds and steam freshly expelled from the earth's bowels streak across the midnight blue. Pristine quiet's broken only by a faint gurgling and occasional hiss from where we know the geyser gapes open in the night. It makes its presence even more apparent with more gurgles and rumbles and hissing and, finally, with a surging tower of water and gas. I can't see it clearly, but I'm sure it's beautiful. This assumption's confirmed the next morning, when we visit the spout in the icy and light blue morning. A few more people are standing on the boardwalk around the geyser, but not many. We humans are outnumbered by bison, about a dozen-and-a-half of which are munching on brush that manages to grow within geyser's gaseous aura. The beasts take no notice when Old Faithful erupts a few feet away. They're just having their breakfast and, in some cases, defecating while doing so. They give a steaming shit and nothing more.

We head to Yellowstone Lake, a massive basin that sits at 7,732 feet atop the continental divide, placement that gives Yellowstone Lake some queer properties. Water on the West flows east, eventually meeting up with the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, while water on the East flows toward the placid Pacific.

Frozen over in the winter, the only sign that there is even a lake there is the break in the tree line, where only a massive, 136-square mile snow field practically begs for the making of snow angels. I happily comply, even though my muscles are sore from the night before. Prior to our rendezvous with Old Faithful, a few of us decided to check out the modest ice rink at Snow Lodge, the only one of Yellowstone's resorts to stay open in the winter. Our go-round on the ice was a big moment for this writer. I've never ice skated, mostly for fear of falling and having my fingers sliced off by a passerby's blades. But I'm learning not to live in fear, so decided to give it a go, and it was a rough one. I'm tall, gangly and all limbs. My center of gravity's far too high for anything resembling grace on ice. And I wasn't entirely free of fear, but I did it, and I'm told I did very well when skating toward the rink's exit.

Later, as we head out of the park, I gaze again at the tree line, seeing not only the burnt husks but the burgeoning trees, the determined upstarted growing into the space eviscerated 25 years ago and I remember something Kurt the naturalist said. It seems like common sense now, but no one knew at the time that those Wyoming wild fires of 1988 helped save the forests. The old growth had to be cleared out for the new. It's in part because of that fire that national parks now have controlled burns. Incineration is essential for survival. Without that volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago, there would be no Yellowstone, no land for the mule deer and otters and you and me.

On my last night in Wyoming, back at the Spring Creek Ranch, I took a short stroll under the stars. I wanted to see them one final time before heading back to New York City, where they're endangered. Orion and his belt were up there, and so were the dippers, big and little. And if my rudimentary astronomy can be trusted, I saw Gemini. Or one of half-of it, at least. I felt lost in it all, so small and insignificant: the emotions appropriate for staring into such an abyss. Then, in another part of the expansive sky, a strange star caught my eye. Did it flicker with recognition? I don't think so, no, but it made me think about how thankful I am to know nightfall. Without darkness, there would be no stars at all.