Total Miles: 1341.0
Come morning, it was the lulls between the wind I noticed most. Only seconds in length, they were still a new feature in the storm that had blanketed our little camp with 6 inches of snow and relentlessly buffeted our tarps with wind throughout the night. They also pointed to the last gasps of the storm as the sun supplanted the clouds even though the temperature had risen at best into the 20s.
It's amazing all the new things you need to consider when conditions change into those we now stared at from our hammocks. Are my shoes frozen solid? Probably. Did I remember to sleep with my water filter so it wouldn't freeze? Check. Did I keep some air in my water bottles and nestle them against the warm ground underneath my pack to limit the extent to which they would freeze from the cold air? I guess we’ll find out. And on and on it goes.
The gear we carry with us is more than up to the job of keeping us safe—though perhaps not supremely comfortable—even in conditions like these, but winter backpacking requires an entirely more thoughtful set of skills to navigate. Thinking ten steps ahead is what prevents small discomforts from becoming serious problems. After a night wearing every single layer we had inside our sleeping bags, we were still plenty warm but dreading the inevitable of striking camp and marching forth through miles of snow to Old Faithful Village.
After massaging Ace’s shoes back to life—or at least enough for her to get her feet into them, anyway—we were off down the trail with improvised vapor barriers over our feet just like kids going out to play in the snow. If you're a glass-half-full kind of person—guess which kind I am—you saw a winter wonderland, gifted almost solely to us, the reward for a challenging and cold 12 hours. The sunshine on the newly blanketed landscape was beautiful, the snow smoothing over the undulations of the ground and everything on it, making small rocks and logs appear to be several times their actual size.
Where the wind had wreaked its havoc most, the 6 or even 8 inches of actual accumulation had piled itself into drifts of at least a foot in depth. But it was all ours.
Not two miles from where we began, I looked up to my surprise and saw a man trudging through the snow toward us. Stopping to chat for a few minutes, we learned his name was “Has No Horse,” a man perhaps in his late sixties with kind eyes and a warm smile with just a hint of mischief behind it that reminded me of my good friend Footloose from all those years ago on the Appalachian Trail. He stood a mere 40 miles from a road crossing that would mark the completion of his own Triple Crown, and we were thrilled for him especially at his perseverance through these conditions so close to the end of his hike.
After saying our goodbyes and congratulating him once more, we plowed through the snow as best we could until finally descending down into the heart of the Geyser Basin outside of Old Faithful Village. Throngs of people were out enjoying the views of all the amusing geothermal features that Yellowstone is so known for—fumeroles, springs, pools, geysers, and mud pots.
I wondered at how much these visitors even knew about the history of the park in which they now stood and the story of wilderness in this country and in the world that it represents. Formally designated in 1872, Yellowstone is the first national park not only of the United States, but of the world. Given the contentious history of wilderness—John Muir’s movement for preservation versus Gifford Pinchot’s push for conservation, among others—in this country, and on issues related to the environment, in general, that we lay claim to something as truly novel as setting aside land for the public good in perpetuity may come as a surprise. But as Ken Burns’ excellent series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea explores at length, the parks are indeed our nation’s best idea, and an admirably progressive one at that.
With so many geothermal “amusements” and laying claim to over half the world’s population of geysers, it’s no wonder that Yellowstone is our first national park. As usual, the history of how it came to be is not as pure as you might expect. The comprehensive resource on the subject—and on all subjects pertaining to the history of wild lands in the United States—is Roderick Frazier Nash’s incredibly well researched (and incredibly dense) Wilderness and the American Mind. It's the kind of enlightening trip through history that you can take small bites of from time to time and repeatedly have your eyes opened to the connective tissue between how we look at the land we live on and our collective history as both a people and as a nation.
Given the novelty of its geothermal features, the origins of interest in protecting the land of Yellowstone began not as an effort to protect wilderness for wilderness sake, but to protect it for the purposes of exploitation by private enterprises, namely the railroads. But regardless of its checkered past and how it ultimately came into being, it gave us what we have today—a special landscape that is particularly accessible for all ages and abilities to enjoy and to appreciate.
Working our way through the clusters of tourists, we followed one of the many boardwalks and marveled at the array of colors on display in the super-heated waters and of the variety of shapes and sizes of the various geysers. Thinking back to early human history, it feels like the kind of place that people would have justifiably thought was literal hell on earth, with its cauldrons of boiling, bubbling, and steaming water.
Around a final bend, the facade of the iconic Old Faithful Inn came into view. Built in 1904 in the golden age of national park lodges, its facade would have to be enough. Closed to all visitation for the year as yet another casualty of Covid, its soaring atrium would have to wait for another visit. A bittersweet end to an early day of winter.