Jul 16, 2021: Bears, Gravity and Dynamite

On our first day in Glacier National Park, we drove to this popular overlook along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, where we stood looking upon St Mary Lake with the tiny Wild Goose Island in its center. The haze was only the beginning as smoke from Washington state wildfires intensified during the next few days in Glacier National Park.
Blue skies over St Mary Lake would soon be replaced with a thick coating of smoky haze for the remainder of our visit. Shortly before this shot was taken, we saw a grizzly bear foraging for berries not far from the road.

In 1926, pack horses burdened with 80 boxes of dynamite and 500 barrels of black powder struggled over 25 miles of glacier terrain to the interior of Glacier National Park. Waiting for them at the high end were construction workers with ropes and drills. The men wore wool socks over their boots to avoid striking a spark from the explosives in hand. For hours, holes were drilled into ancient rock to be packed with TNT while detonating wire was run up the rock wall.

From a pull-off along the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
From the lookout, a short trail brought me to this view.
A graffiti-littered ice pack alongside the road where a guy named Jude left his mark. Fortunately, his name will melt away.

McDonald Creek Valley lay 1000 feet below the workers. As the charge was set off, 10,000 cubic yards of shattered rock exploded into the valley, filling the sky with dust. After the dust cleared, members of the construction crew were dazzled by a breathtaking view unlike any other. Before them stood a dozen white glaciers packed in rugged pockets of the Lewis Mountains that stood endlessly into the horizon. At the time, construction of the Sun Road was halfway into a 13-yr, 2.25-million-dollar project.

The view of the Triple Arches through a tour bus window.

Observing ice masses so large as to flow under their own weight is good enough reason to visit Glacier National Park, especially given their days are numbered. Ironically, the 26 remaining glaciers within the park are not easy to see because they tend to be tucked away in the mountains out of view. But that’s OK because what really brings people to Glacier National Park is the jaw-dropping scenery that was created by those glaciers and what makes “The Crown of the Continent” stand out among national parks. For most visitors, the views of glacier-carved craggy peaks that frame a U-shaped valley or reflect boldly on a clear glacier lake are seen by way of a transmountain highway. And it is this highway, known as the Going-to-the-Sun Road that draws our attention and demands our highest adoration for this national park, as well as for all others that followed in its scenic road-building footsteps.

Lo and behold, Jackson Glacier as viewed from a roadside lookout. It’s the large snow mass in the middle, located in a cirque or “ice-cream scoop-like amphitheatre”. I believe it is the only glacier we saw in the park, at least knowingly.
Classic U-shaped valley, near Logan Pass.

Aside from seeing a grizzly bear, the Going-to-the-Sun Road is likely the most anticipated experience for thrill-seeking visitors to Glacier. And for some, driving on it may be as feared as seeing a grizzly. When Glacier National Park was established in 1910, there were two obstacles for park planners – bringing people to Glacier and the greater of the two, moving them through Glacier. At the time, an east and west side of Glacier existed, but no automobile road connected the two through the park.

In addition to the Going-to-the-Sun Road, we drove north to ‘Many Glacier’ where we hiked to Redrock Falls, seen here. Behind me and to the left stood a very large moose partially hidden by tall bushes along side the creek. It was too far away for me to capture it with my wide angle lens.
A view of Swiftcurrent Pass from the trail to Redrock Falls. This was our second day in the park and skies were still blue.
From along the trail, water levels were low as they were throughout our entire trip out west.

The idea of building a road through Glacier National Park was popular at the time as the era of automobile touring and national park visitations had begun. Several ideas for a road were brought forth but the only one that never dropped from the original plans was for a road along Lake McDonald, up and over Logan Pass (elevation 6,646 ft), and back down into St Mary Valley. By 1920, road construction on the west side allowed better access to Lake McDonald and on the east side access to St Mary Lake. By 1922, the Transmountain Highway (before given its current name) had reached an end, practically speaking. Continuing it was an unprecedented and monumental feat.

St Mary Falls.
A view of St Mary Lake from the trail.

The first director of the NPS, Stephen T Mather was hired to help give the underfunded park system a boost. Automobiles were being manufactured at high rates and in 1916, 335,000 people visited the 11 parks that existed at the time. Mather took the idea of a transmountain highway and ran with it. He hired engineer Frank Kittredge who led a survey team into Glacier in 1924. He started with a ragtag team of surveyors and was later quoted as saying “There were really three crews; one coming, one working, and one going.” Every day, someone quit as the team bushwhacked brush, skirted narrow ledges, crossed paths with grizzlies and endured blizzards. Kittredge came out of the survey and presented his proposal for “a road so marvelously engineered as to be an attraction in itself.” A new route was established, and funds and efforts began on the 12 ½ mile stretch from McDonald Creek (west side) and over Logan Pass.

Thick haze in the morning thinned out enough by afternoon, making the sun visible again over St Mary Lake.
Evidence of wildfires along St Mary Falls Trail.

Glacier National Park has explicit restrictions for driving the 52-mile Going-to-the Sun Road including vehicles longer than 21 ft (including bumpers) and wider than 8 ft (including mirrors). Consequently, Vivian and I were not keen on taking our 21-ft long, 8-ft wide truck up and over the hairpin turns of Logan Pass. With campground reservations in East Glacier, we were saddened to think we would miss out on West Glacier. Acquiring a shuttle reservation had to be done online at specified time periods and the chances of that were looking dim. Rather than taking the chance of missing the road experience, we signed up for a tour led by a Blackfeet company. The tour bus met us at the Saint Mary Visitor Center, took us up to to Logan Pass and then tracked back to the Visitor Center. Our tour itinerary meant that the infamous westside 12 ½ mile stretch from McDonald Creek to Logan Pass would elude us.

A Columbian ground squirrel at Logan Pass. We did see pika on the ground and from a distance, we saw bighorn sheep scaling the rock walls.

On October 20, 1928, the western leg of the Transmountain Highway finally reached Logan Pass. Bears, gravity, and dynamite were each a concern during the construction of the road, but the latter two posed the more immediate threat. To help compensate for dangerous work and weather conditions, meals for the workers were abundant and gourmet. While the highly valued cooks did a superb job keeping the hungry bears at bay, the Sun Road claimed one life during those three seasons of construction (Charles Rudberg fell 60 ft after losing his grip on a rope one mile above The Loop). The dangerous work conditions created a whopping 300% turnover in workforce during the first three months alone. The road was open to car traffic on June 15, 1929, followed by a 46% increase in auto visitation to the park.

The lobby of Lake McDonald Lodge.
If I had been driving, I never would have seen Glacier National Park. Both eyes on the road!

While waiting for our tour bus at the visitor center, we learned that scoring a shuttle bus seat was not as difficult as the online system led you to believe. Local knowledge given to us prompted our return to the visitor center the next day where we boarded the shuttle. After transferring to another shuttle at Logan Pass, we continued all the way west to Apgar Visitor Center. The ride was spectacular. From the large bus window, there appeared to be no ground between us and the valley floor as the bus driver skillfully negotiated the narrow space between sheer rock cliffs or drop offs on one side and a passing vehicle on the other.

A couple hours past sunrise yielded a hazy view of the sun from Logan Pass Visitor Center parking area while we waited to transfer to the shuttle bus taking us to Lake McDonald.
From the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot. The smoky haze worsened with each day.
Near Apgar among the cedar trees.
Avalanche Creek north of Lake McDonald.
Trail of the Cedars, north of Lake McDonald.

Two years after the 12 ½ mile western route was completed, the eastside construction began, and the name Transmountain Highway gave way to “Going-to-the-Sun Road”. There, 60-ton capacity pontoons lashed together were used to bring in power shovels and other gear to the head of St Mary Lake. The most challenging section of the east side would be the 408-ft tunnel, 2 miles below Logan Pass. Engineer in charge, A.V. Emery, expected a man in good physical condition to carry a 50-lb box of dynamite down the trail and ladder in 30 minutes. According to one worker, “On several occasions men stood at the top of the cliff, looked down the ladder, and turned in their resignations.”

The south side of Glacier National Park includes the Two Medicine area. The smoky haze had worsened on our final day at Glacier, spent hiking along Two Medicine Lake seen here.
Tour boat on Two Medicine Lake.

During the final summer of work in 1932, two more workers tragically lost their lives. By the time snow began covering the project in the fall of 1932, the road was almost completed. With just a few touch ups needed in the spring, the road was scheduled to open in the summer of 1933. Come June, the road crews began clearing the west side. On the east side, the road was buried with 80 feet of snow. Tractors and dozers cleared it out and by July 7 it was ready. The opening ceremony for the Going-to-the-Sun Road on July 15 was observed by 4,000 visitors that streamed into Logan Pass from both directions. That year, over 20,000 vehicles entered the park. Between 1938 and 1952, crews paved the gravel road and currently, it accommodates more than 3 million visitors annually.

Indeed, “…a road so marvelously engineered as to be an attraction in itself.” Think about the Going-to-the-Sun Road as you read the following quote from Stephen T Mather, national park director 1917-29: “Who will gainsay (deny) that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness… He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.

Enjoy this slideshow of more photos from our hike along Two Medicine Lake, Glacier National Park.

Jul 9, 2021 – Cowboys – The Art and Soul of the American West

Cowboy accessories from downtown Bozeman, Montana
A poster of an artist’s presentation of this year’s Livingston Round Up, from downtown gallery in Livingston, Montana.

We spent the better part of July in Montana. Consequently, we got a healthy dose of authentic cowboy culture. The myth of the cowboy that developed in the late 1900s remains strong today, even decades after John Wayne and the Marlboro Man passed away. Think of a cowboy and you’ll likely conjure up words like independent, free, rugged, and manly. The fact is, cattle herding was monotonous and numbing hard work, considered a lowly job on the fringe of society. But somehow cowboys got recast as the epitome of manly courage and rugged independence; men who, in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “embody the hardy and self-reliant type who possess the manly qualities that are invaluable to a nation”.

For this cowgirl (in nontraditional garb), riding one horse is too easy. Two is better!
Under the big sky of Montana, team roping is one of the competitions we observed at the Livingston Round Up.

As far as the cowboy is an icon of the American West Heritage, Montana is authentic cowboy country with its wild frontier and rugged Rocky Mountains. And it is here where we first experienced the cowboy as an entertainer/athlete and then later as an artist. Neither Vivian nor I had experienced a rodeo before attending the Livingston Round Up (the word rodeo by the way is Spanish for round up). It was the 4th of July and rainstorms had sabotaged much of the day. By the time the rodeo began, clouds had cleared out and a cool crisp Montana evening unfolded. The arena stadium was filled with enthusiastic Montanans, some clearly there to celebrate the red, white and blue, but almost all to celebrate their Montana cowboy heritage.

This calf had just lost the competition against two ropers. What you see here is a trained animal leading, not being led by, a cowboy toward an open gate. Safely inside a pen, the calf will rest among others like it and likely be whisked away to another round up for another evening of competition. Trained as they may be, sometimes the animal does not cooperate. We did see an extremely large bull stubbornly lay down after bucking a rider. An agile and very brave cowboy had to prod it. What does an angry prodded bull do? It charges the prodder. Fortunately, bull and prodder made it safely back to the pen.

That evening under the setting sun of a Big Montana Sky and the bright lights of the arena, Vivian and I sat in the crowded cheap seats. My attendance at an outdoor sporting event is a rare thing, which is more than I can say for Vivian who has never attended one. So, it is of no surprise we both felt totally out of place for that reason and a few others, including being a small minority of hatless persons and most likely the only people who could genuinely claim Miami as home. Expecting a drunken frenzy in the spirit of rugged Montana independence and American patriotism, we pleasantly found ourselves surrounded by the politest strangers we have ever encountered, many of whom watched the rodeo competition with an obvious respect for their cowboy and cowgirl compatriots. Consequently, we caught the cowboy fever and enjoyed the show. More so, we learned a lot about rodeos.

As the cowboys & cowgirls train for the rodeo, so do the animals. We learned bucking horses are trained to buck off their riders and specifically bred for rodeos. This horse, like others is worth thousands of dollars and as a valuable investment, is kept in good health for many years. Same for the bulls. Some go as far as saying they are spoiled animals. On the other hand, I cringed watching these men’s spines get jolted violently back and forth. I could feel their pain as I watched them limp away. By the way, catastrophic injury rate among rodeo contestants is twice that of American football players.
The cowgirls do not compete in most events, such as bronc or bull riding. Here is one of the champion barrel racers which was the only competition we got to see cowgirls compete.

Shortly after that, we left Livingston and came into Great Falls where we parked for a week. While Livingston gave us a dose of cowboy pride, Great Falls offered up the cowboy artist and opened our eyes to Western Art. Great Falls, Montana cannot claim much to attract tourists, but it can proudly claim cowboy artist Charles M Russell. The city on the Missouri River has a significant connection to Lewis & Clark’s Corp of Discovery, so it is steeped in history. But unless you are a history buff, there is not much to see in Great Falls, except a treasure trove of western art thanks to Charles M. Russell.

Charlie Russell built his studio next to his home in Great Falls, Montana. He is pictured here inside it and with one of his bronze sculptures on display at the C.M. Russell Museum.
The cattle skull is a moniker used by Russell in all his paintings, sometimes as an actual part of the scene, but most of the time inked in as part of his signature. It is the inspiration behind the “Russell Skull Society of Artists“.

Art and the cowboy never came together more perfectly than that of C.M. Russell and his paintings and sculptures. Born in 1864, Russell is known as the “original cowboy artist”. Growing up in Missouri, he drew sketches and created clay sculptures of animals, and had a strong interest in the “wild west”. After learning how to ride horses (he was taught on a famous Civil War horse named Great Britain), Charlie left school and went to Montana to work on a sheep farm and eventually on a ranch in the Judith Basin. It is there where Russell learned to be a cowboy and an artist.

Russell was inspired by many artists including Karl Bodmer (1809-93) who etched this drawing of a native warrior. The second drawing is Russell’s attempt to emulate Bodmer. The drawing is amateurish & crude, which makes his later paintings even more extraordinary coming from an informally trained artist.

But Russell was a quick learner. He and wife Nancy took several trips to New York City beginning in 1904. He mentioned a desire to learn how to “lay on color” and got his wish when he visited the studios of several successful New Your artists to watch them work. His piece here titled “The Fireboat” from 1918, clearly illustrates his acuity. Having made friends with many Native Americans, he painted from their perspective as they experienced the coming of the white man. In this painting, they watch from above the steamboats on the Missouri River.

He remained in Montana for the rest of his life, but it was during his time as a cattle herder working for a number of outfits that he began documenting the cowboy life through watercolors. He also spent a great deal of time among the Blood Indians, a part of the Blackfeet nation. From them, he gained knowledge of Native American culture. Both the cowboy culture and Native American culture come through realistically by way of Russell’s vivid and detailed paintings.

Two artists, two friends. On the left is CM Russell, the right OC Seltzer who learned from and was encouraged to pursue his art. They shared a great interest in Montana’s wildlife, landscape and history and often took sketching trips together to wilderness areas such as Glacier National Park.
We learned of a strange and interesting story concerning these two artist friends. This is an OC Seltzer painting titled “Lassoing a Longhorn”. At some point, Seltzer sold the painting, his signature was removed and replaced by a forged Russell signature (bottom left corner). At the time, Russell’s paintings were worth 10 times more than Seltzer’s. Long story short, there was enough evidence for it being a Seltzer original and a couple of lawsuits to boot. I took this photo in the OC Seltzer exhibit with his portrait hanging on the wall behind me, reflecting onto his painting.
Russell’s signature skull was sometimes painted into the scene like in the bottom left corner of this painting titled “Wanderers of the Trackless Way” from 1887. Even with no formal training and before learning to “lay on color”, Russell understood composition with his use of interesting foreground objects.

In 1896, Charlie married his wife Nancy who became his business partner and promoter. Too humble for self-promotion, Russell could attribute much of his fame and success to his wife. As an artist, Russell broke through at a time when interest in the cowboy and American West was great among eastern urban dwellers. Among some of Russell’s collectors were Will Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks as well as fellow artists of the West.

The CM Russell Museum stands on the grounds of the Russell’s homestead where their house and studio remain. Visitors can tour the buildings where everything inside is authentic, like this typewriter used by Nancy as Charlie’s promoter and business partner.

Russell’s remarkable illustrations of life in the Old West became a standard adopted by movies that became known as Westerns. Russell, who died at home in 1926 where he and Nancy resided in Great Falls for many years, produced over 4000 works of art, including oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, and sculptures of various mediums including bronze. On the day of his funeral, schools in Great Falls closed so the children could watch the funeral procession with Russell’s coffin displayed in a glass-sided coach pulled by four black horses (the carriage is on full display at the museum).

The Russell’s must have liked the design of these chairs, or the artist that created them, one is in house and the other in the studio.

Recently, I began downloading magazines through the Miami-Dade Library System to fill some of our “lack of wifi” time while on the road. I was happy to see among the collection a magazine titled “Western Art Collector”. Having been to the C.M. Russell Museum, it piqued my interest. Russell’s legacy permeates the magazine, and his influence is obvious among several contemporary artists’ work. I eagerly perused the pages, enjoying announcements of exhibits with titles like “Vistas, Varmints and Vagabonds” or “The West – A Second Coming”. Western Art has a large following and from what we have seen, it is no surprise to us. Here is a small sample of artwork from other artists (including one of my favorites, Thomas Moran) on display at the CM Russell Museum.

Seeing Russell’s work and other western artists’ work in Montana added a new dimension to our travels out west. Exploring the western wilderness via national parks is priceless but the revelations that come from the art of someone who interprets it as they lived it adds great meaning to our travels. We saw this in New Mexico where Georgia O’Keeffe revealed her intimate connection to the high desert landscapes. And now in Montana, Charles M Russell brought to life the Old West through the art and soul of a cowboy.

Enjoy more photos from our visit to Bozeman, Livingston and Great Falls.

Cowboy art on display in the charming downtown Bozeman.
Bozeman under the big Montana sky.
After dropping Vivian’s sister off at the Bozeman airport at 6:00 am, we wandered downtown Bozeman where the only place open early enough for us to have breakfast was the Western Cafe.
We found Livingston to be irresistibly charming.
Cowboys are not the only inspiration for art in Montana.
And Vivian gave it a go on the Missouri River near Craig, Montana. Notice the tiny specks in the air, that’s a massive trico mayfly hatch.
While in Great Falls, we visited the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center where a festival was going on. Snakes were on display and this is a hognose, completely harmless to humans.
Re-enacters describe life on the Corp of Discovery, including an actual beaver hide skinning demonstration. Not going to show you that, but you can see a dead beaver laying on the table in preparation for the demo. I am holding in my hand the beaver’s foot.

You can read more about how art plays a big role in our travels, including Georgia O’Keeffe, a photographer in a cave, the art of rock n’ roll, and our attraction to quirky, creepy art.

Jul 2, 2021 – The Sound of Music

At Isa Lake, in Yellowstone National Park. What makes a divide a divide? Water flows down one side or the other. In the case of the continental divide, water flows into the Pacific Ocean from one side and into the Atlantic Ocean from the other. Located on Craig Pass, Isa Lake straddles the continental divide, meaning its water flows into both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
What makes the American West what it is.

The Americas have several hydrological divides, one of which runs all the way from northern Alaska to Central America. Being the longest of all, this one is known as THE Continental Divide or sometimes as the Great Divide. Compared to the other divides, the great one is associated with the highest peaks along the primary mountain ranges of the Rockies and the Andes. The spine of the Rockies runs through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, and is likely the most outstanding feature that defines the American West. I always thought that if I could fly alongside the Rockies at eye level, I might envision the peaks to be an arrangement of musical notes and each mountain range might be a chord.

Coming into Grand Teton National Park after driving 114 miles, including the infamous scenic Highway 22.

While camped on the Henry’s Fork near West Yellowstone, we devoted one day to drive a long distance (110 miles one way) to Grand Teton National Park. Inside the park, we viewed the peaks named by the early French voyageurs, ‘les trois tétons’ or ‘the three nipples’. What makes the Teton Range so famous is that they have a dramatic elevation on the eastern side, which is where the national park is established. From the valley floor, the staccato-like peaks rise sharply 4000 to 7000 feet without foothills or smaller peaks to block the view. This is because the Tetons are relatively young and have not yet eroded into the slow tempo of soft hills. In fact, the Teton Range is the youngest among the Rocky Mountains. The young summits rise as high as 13,775 feet.

Yes, they’re real and they’re spectacular. From Schwabacher Landing.

When most people vacation in the American West, it is with the intention of being in the mountains, to stand in awe of the grand peaks, to hike up or climb on. Like a melody, the mountain peaks inspire us and evoke emotions. Consequently, I felt a touch of guilt as I stood on the Teton valley floor looking up at those spectacular peaks feeling a bit uninspired. Maybe it was the high-pitched expectations, after all we were told by a few that the Tetons would drown out Yellowstone on any day. Not so for me.

A quickie shot of Mormon Row. I found those clouds hovering around the peaks interesting. They appeared to grow out of the mountains.
One of the views from String Lake.

And here is why. We saw the Tetons, but we didn’t experience them. We heard them, but we didn’t really listen to them. Admittedly, we were in the park for a half day, barely enough time to hike along String Lake or capture a few shots of the peaks from popular locations like Schwabacher Landing and Mormon Row. The peaks remained a distant pattern, like the repeating sound of a jazz drummer’s ride cymbal. From our very short visit, we can only say we have been to Grand Teton National Park where I took a postcard photograph of the famous peaks. And that’s about it.

Our home for a week, near Livingston, Montana at the home of our friends, Kris and Mike. That’s Mike’s drift boat awaiting Yellowstone River.
We spent each evening enjoying the view from our friends’ back porch.

After staying near West Yellowstone, we pulled the RV a short distance north of Yellowstone NP where friends Mike and Kris built their home near the Yellowstone River. They generously gave us their driveway to park and then introduced us to the Beartooth Mountains, another mountain range offspring of the Rocky Mountains, but much more mature than the Tetons. Classical vs contemporary. These mountains are part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which makes them unique and diverse. Among them is Granite Peak, the highest point in Montana (12,799 ft) and through which Chief Joseph led the Nez Perce Indians while attempting to reach Canada in 1877.

I hear a symphony from atop the Beartooth plateau.
The peak in the distance looks like a bear tooth.
Called the “most beautiful highway” the 69-mile Beartooth Highway offers plenty of views like this one.

The Beartooth Mountains contain large plateaus that exist at altitudes above 10,000 ft and contain 25 small glaciers, and over 300 lakes, some with waterfalls. We had the pleasure of hiking a small portion of the Beartooth plateau (where no trees grow), which allowed Vivian to touch snow for the second time in her life. Unlike our Grand Teton visit, we were IN the mountains. An octave or two above the valley at 10,000 feet, we stood on large rocks (among some of the oldest on earth) and looked at the mountain peaks at eye level. We were in an alpine environment where winds can blow above 100 mph and temperatures can drop to 70 degrees below zero. It is where an inch of topsoil can take up to a 1,000 years to develop, and where plants and animals survive a growing season lasting three months or less. If this environment were music, it would be the harsh and loud brass instruments that can also be lured back into a steady and calm note to support the softer melodic woodwinds.

Don’t eat the red snow. The red is created from microscopic algae which can grow from the combination of dissolved nutrients, sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Alpine wildflowers seem to grow from rocks.
Early July and wildflower season had barely begun.
One of the many lakes in the Beartooths. At this subalpine altitude, trees grow.

Later, we hiked through a subalpine section (8000-10000 feet) where we found respite from the hot daytime temperatures that had prevailed for several weeks on our travels. Wildflowers were beginning to come out of dormancy and entice us with brilliant blues, reds and yellows. Small glacial lakes offered brilliant water reflections of rock and snow patches. I could almost hear the lilting sounds of a clarinet concerto. Avid hikers and climbers, Mike and Kris have spent many days and nights playing these mountains and memorizing the notes. A small sample was given to us as they pointed to sections of the range and described their climbs – the woodwinds over here, the percussion over there.

If the mountains were a grand symphony, then our short time in the Teton and Beartooth Mountains amounted to one note. But it was a spectacular note. Maybe on our next visit we will hear a few bars.

Over 10,000 feet altitude, no trees grow. But what a view!

June 26, 2021 – A Science Lesson Brought to you by Yellowstone National Park

Let’s start with this scene, 6 am at the West Yellowstone entrance to the national park. The line was short compared to the 3 miles of vehicles coming in at 1pm as we were leaving.

This blog is inspired by our first visit to Yellowstone National Park. But I will warn you now, I am going off on a tangent, sort of a Bill Bryson “Short History of Nearly Everything” kind of tangent.

The highlight of most people’s visit to the park is the eruption of Old Faithful, which occurs every 60-90 minutes. Here, I wait with a 1000 other people for earth’s most famous geothermal to spew a column of hot water and steam into the air.
There are about a thousand geysers on earth and most of them are in Yellowstone National Park. This was well worth the wait.

Many years ago, I picked up an oversized book at the local Borders bookstore titled “The Animal Kingdom”. I think I paid $10 ($2 per lb) for it as it was among many on a table of discounted books. As someone fascinated with how life forms adapt to their environments, I loved that 1000+-page book and referred to it quite often to indulge my armchair analyses of the natural world. And it was only when Vivian and I purged most of our belongings to live in a 300-sq-ft RV that I parted ways with it.

This early morning sight awaits as you enter Yellowstone National Park from the west side. These are steam vents or fumaroles, and in the morning they are quite visible. These are basically waterless geysers.
The park does a good job giving people close access to the geothermals. This is the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk into the Grand Prismatic Springs.
Water temperature in the Excelsior Geyser is 199 degrees F. This is a dormant geyser, last eruption well over a hundred years ago. Today, it is a thermal spring that churns out lots of hot water.

What left an impression on me from that book came from its introduction. In it, the main topic ‘Animals’ was placed into a broader context in which all living things are organized (biological taxonomy). The information was current enough that it described the three-domain system devised by Carl Woese in 1990. Basically, all life can be categorized into archaea, bacteria and eukarya. Stay with me here, this blog really is about Yellowstone National Park.

I can almost see where someone might be tempted to walk out into this scene which is the outer area of the Grand Prismatic. And people have, unfortunately. People also throw things into the hot pools.
Look closely at the bottom end of this picture and you’ll see footprints. Some are human and I suspect bison made the others. I also suspect the human footprints were officially made by a park service employee.
Turquoise Pool seen here from the Midway Geyser Basin boardwalk connects underground to Excelsior spring.

To put this into a casual blog context, there are two kinds of cells in this world. One is the well-known eukaryote which contains a membrane-bound nucleus where all the genetic coding exists. Eukaryotes are what animals and plants are made of, and thus, animals and plants (along with fungi by the way) fall into the eukarya domain. Whereas, the unicellular microorganisms of the archaea and bacteria domain are prokaryotes, cells with no membrane-bound nucleus. And here’s a fun fact, prokaryotes were the first life forms on this planet, eukaryotes evolved from them. Nevertheless, eukaryotes are profoundly different from prokaryotes.

The boardwalk contains a bridge that crosses the Firehole River. Here, you see the banks of the river that connect it to the hot springs.

In the 1970s, scientists began sequencing DNA and RNA. Applying this cutting-edge technology, Woese & colleagues discovered that bacteria were just as different from archaea as they were from eukaryotes. As a result of their work, Woese determined that any known life form could be classified within one of these three domains – archaea, bacteria or eukarya. I don’t know about yours, but in my mind that offers an interesting perspective on life considering that humans are only one of millions of species within the animal kingdom that is only one of four within one domain that is one of three on the entire tree of life.

Imagine coming upon an aquamarine pool like this, feeling fatigued from your exploration. So inviting! The blue indicates the center of the spring, where temperatures are the highest, up to 189 degrees F.

Upon my discovery of the three domains, I turned my attention away from the sexy topic of eukarya and discovered a more seductive one and while at it, picked up a new favorite word – extremophile. Almost entirely within the archaea domain are the prokaryotic unicellular organisms that live under extreme conditions. Having spent a better part of my adult life studying human physiological adaptations to physical stress, I was drawn naturally to the idea that there are organisms surviving, strike that, thriving in environmental conditions so extreme that a human could not survive beyond a millisecond. Our physiology allows us to endure a lot, hot and cold temperatures, excessive physical demands, and high and low atmospheric pressures. When our physiology reaches its limits, our brains devise ways to overcome those limitations. Up to a point, that is. To that end, extremophiles make us look like wimps.

The boardwalk takes you past Excelsior and then to the Grand Prismatic Springs. Here you see the outlying areas surrounding grand prismatic, with temperatures ranging from 147 to 188 degrees F. The rust-colored mats indicate extremophiles living in “cooler” temperatures.
Extremophiles, or more specifically, thermophiles are not wimps, but they can’t live everywhere. At temperatures of 189 degrees F, there are no living microorganisms, as indicated by the blue or hottest area of the spring. Blue indicates clear water. Why blue? When sunlight hits the water surface, it scatters. Blue light scatters the most and reflects off the water, which is what we see.
Of course, not everything can survive in extreme environments. Dead trees are common in Yellowstone as you see here. The springs are rich in minerals, like calcium carbonate. That’s the white stuff you see. It clogs the vascular systems of the trees.

Some extremophiles live in ice, some live thousands of feet under the ocean surface next to sea vents and some live in Yellowstone National Park. While you were self-isolating to avoid a tiny virus spreading across the land, you may have run across a story about a discovery in Yellowstone in 1966. On a visit to the park, biologist Dr. Thomas Brock made a discovery that microorganisms lived in the extreme heat of Yellowstone’s hot pools.

What you see here are microorganisms, archaea and bacteria, extremophiles, thermophiles. This was at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, next to Yellowstone Lake.
Yellow indicates temperatures around 165 degree F, thanks to cyanobacteria that produce carotenoids. Orange is another species of microorganisms that survive in slightly cooler temperatures, 149 degree F.
Red or burgundy color are microorganisms surviving in 131 degree F. Here you see a mud pot, not as attractive as the hotter aquamarine pools. Mudpots are lined with clay and have no direct connection to underground water. They are also stinky due to hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s Yellowstone Lake in the background.

A couple decades later, another scientist, Kary Mullis was attempting to make copies of a single DNA molecule. To do that, he needed an enzyme that could work at high temperatures. Guess where he found his enzyme? From Brock’s discovery of Thermus aquaticus in Yellowstone, scientists like Mullis could purchase a culture and grow batches to find the heat-resistant enzyme. It worked and those enzymes became the key to a widely used method to make millions of copies of genetic material. That method, called polymerase chain reaction or PCR, has such a significant effect on scientific advances, that a Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Mullis in 1993. And In 2020, scientists used the PCR method (remember the nose swab?) to detect the genetic material of COVID-19. You got to love science.

The travertine terraces of Mammoth Springs seen here and below. These are formed from limestone and the hot water that rises through the limestone.
The water carries dissolved limestone or calcium carbonate and deposits it at the surface. This forms the chalky white travertine terrace. The orange and rust colors are, you guessed it, extremophiles!

But I digress. The real reason most of us come to Yellowstone is not because of a fascination of tiny microorganisms that can live in temperatures above 170 degrees or pH levels below 3, but rather because our eyes perceive it as one of the most beautiful and fascinating places on earth. Earth needs to let off a little steam and heat, and it does so through its geothermal exit points – geysers, fumeroles, hot springs and mudpots. And where there are geothermals, there are thermophilic archaea and bacteria thriving among them. Because these extremophiles love to interact with heat and light, they become a feast of colors to the human eye. The creation of art through the collaborative efforts of biology and physics. Art on the edge brought to you by extremophilia.

And that is where we are left standing, in awe of earth and its life forms that present themselves beyond our human boundaries. That’s the nature of nature, and Yellowstone National Park offers one of the best ornaments on the tree of life.