Nothing refreshes my soul like time spent in the mountains. The pungent scent of pines and sagebrush on the breeze … the majesty of granite peaks soaring into the sapphire sky … the utter silence of a mountain meadow … the sense that ghosts of mountain men still roam the forested mountainsides. A peace descends, a calm envelopes.
One of my favorite places, particularly in autumn, is nearby Yellowstone. Dawn on the Madison River is unforgettable. The hazy early morning light streaming through the canyons reveals herds of bison and elk grazing in the golden quiet of the open meadows and Canada geese resting on the placid water. And this is just the breathless beginning, because autumn in Yellowstone is a dream of gold and crimson aspens among the pines and steam rising from azure geyser waters and orange bacterial mats, wafting warmly past your face. It is the tumbling waterfalls on the Gibbon and Firehole Rivers, the hidden, primitive splendor of Kepler Cascades, the elegance of Lewis Falls. It is the sorrow of mile upon mile of ghostly lodgepole spires, the forest lost in the fires of 1988. And it is the joy of life returning in the springing emerald carpet of young pines and the promise of life renewing in the bugling of the elk.
We have our favorite spots. Mammoth Hot Springs, which actually makes us sad these days. We remember when it was a fairyland of cream, pink, and orange terraces and cascading boiling water. Hillside after hillside was that way. The terraces are still there, but they have been reduced to crusty white travertine, whether from drought or from changes underground brought on by the swarms of earthquakes that occur in Yellowstone. Only a few areas remain that hint at the grandeur it once was. Lamar Valley, world famous for its wildlife. Here we see more bison and some antelope, but one can hope to find elk, grizzlies, and wolves there as well. The highway from Tower Junction to Canyon is closed. The drive to Mount Washburn and over Dunraven Pass is rugged and wild and thrilling, and it is tremendously disappointing to have to turn back. But, retrace the miles we do, in order to end the day’s travel in the mystic realm of Mud Volcano, Black Dragon’s Cauldron, and Dragon’s Mouth, where boiling water rumbles and thunders deep within hidden caverns.
The day ends with a good meal and conversation with Gene the bartender at The Gusher in West Yellowstone and a cozy cabin at Hibernation Station. And the heartache for me begins upon awakening the next morning, as it comes to me that it’s time to head home. A quick stop to watch Old Faithful shooting toward the sky and listen to the tourists cheering. Then it’s homeward, south through Grand Teton where the smoke is so thick from the forest fires, it is impossible to see the peaks. And I feel sad for those who have traveled far to see them – maybe for once in their lifetime. We must have hundreds, maybe thousands of photos of the Tetons, and it’s hard to imagine going home without more. For they are an ever-changing study of light and shadow, shrouds of mist or bathed in sunlight, green of springtime to autumn hues, where moose and grizzlies roam the willow thickets at the base of those towering peaks.
I began to write this piece weeks ago, and since, we’ve enjoyed a wonderful Thanksgiving with family and now we’re plunging into the bustle of the Christmas season. Following that we’ll be hunkering down to wait out the snow, spending the dark days writing and longing for spring when we can once again head to Yellowstone, to experience the delight of new life in green-leafing trees and elk and bison calves. The ghostly mountain men, as always, await our return.