The West is Gone Behind Us

We left Colorado this morning, and that means the last of the mountains are about to fade into our rearview mirror. After a month and a half of nearly continuously having them wherever we look—towering over cities, serving as loci for colossal parks, forming high passes that make our car’s engine wheeze—we are finally, officially, done with them. We won’t see another mountain worthy of the name until we reach the Appalachians.

I’ll miss the mountains. I’ve always been a flatland kid—I was born in Wisconsin, went to college in Ohio, did AmeriCorps in the South and the East Coast, and lived in Ohio again before New Orleans, which has been flirting with sea level for the better part of a century. Mountains were always a special thing for me, something so completely foreign to my experience that they were a source of wonder. Whenever we’d go to California to visit Gramma and the rest of the California clan, I would goggle out the airplane window at the Rockies and the Sierras, and stare wide-eyed at the mountain range that made up Grandpa’s backyard. I always wondered what it would be like to grow up in a place with mountains, with this sort of majestic natural creation dominating your geography.

We’ve been among the mountains for a month and a half, and they lived up to everything I wanted. Easily. We camped at Lassen Peak, in northern California, which was a whole blog post in itself; we hiked to Chaos Crags, where a rockslide centuries ago had buried an entire forest under a hundred feet of rock, and saw the five-ton boulder that Lassen’s 1915 eruption had hurled three miles from the crater. We visited Crater Lake, created when Mount Mazama blew its top off six thousand years ago, and later filled with water to create the bluest lake I’ve ever seen. We stopped at Mount St. Helens on the way up to Seattle and saw the river valley that had been scoured clean with boiling mud in the 1980 eruption. And we spent three days at Yellowstone and saw the caldera the size of Rhode Island—and that’s just the crater!!—that will one day blow the roof off the Mountain West.

Geysers are among the craziest things I’ve ever seen. We saw several blow their tops while hiking around the Old Faithful area, including Old Faithful itself (timed within a 20-minute window by some miracle of modern science), but the most special was Lion Geyser, which considerately blew when we were right in front of it. Lion was steaming hard as we walked up to it, and then Lioness (or one of the cubs, i.e. small nearby geysers) started steaming and belching water two or three feet in the air, and Rebecca and I looked at each other and said “This might be about to happen”, and then there was the deep rumble and roaring in the earth that gave Lion its name, and then it blew!! It blew twenty feet in the air, right in front of us, water so hot that it vaporized almost immediately upon meeting the air, enveloping us in a cloud of warm, soft, sulfur-scented steam. It was spectacular, incredible, all the adjectives you could throw out there.

It was the geysers that helped me realize the sheer scale of Yellowstone. When I heard that Yellowstone Lake, a 140-square-mile body of water, filled only about 20% of the caldera*, that was mind-blowing enough. But seeing the field of geysers—and it is a field, acres of scanty grass and bleach-white stones and vibrant red-orange bacterial runoff and bubbling geysers and transcendent, color-filled pools—and seeing the plumes of steam from dozens of geysers, which had been erupting and erupting for Lord only knows how many years, and realizing that not only were they all powered by a single source, but that that source was exerting only the tiniest part of its true power to make all these fountains fire on cue… that was when I got some idea of the power of Yellowstone Caldera.

That was the last and the biggest of the mountains. We’re heading east on Route 34 as I type this, and by the time I post this, we’ll have long since joined up with U.S. Route 76/80 and followed it all the way across Nebraska to Omaha, where we’re staying tonight. Another day and we’ll be in Chicago, and after that, we can hardly even be said to be traveling; I’ll be home in Wisconsin, then to an adopted home in Cleveland, and then to Rebecca’s home in Philadelphia… and then our new home, our together-home, in Cambridge, MA.

Only two weeks left, maybe two and a half. I can’t believe how long it’s been going, and I can’t believe how fast it’s gone.

 

*It’s not fully in the caldera, though; if it was fully within the caldera’s borders it would be a higher percentage.