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Deep into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

by Rick Lamplugh
Aug. 17, 2015

Mary and I have come to a complete stop at the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  Our campsite is on a private bench about the size of a football field and forty feet above the river. From this bench we can climb up a steep trail and back to the trailhead. Or down a gentler trail to the Yellowstone River and an intimate beach with both ends guarded by impassable active thermal features. 

 We have chosen the beach and will sit here all day.  I will journal, and every hour or so I’ll photograph, hoping to capture the colorful changes brought on by Yellowstone’s mesmerizing blend of sun and clouds. Mary has found a spot where previous visitors built low backrests using river rock.  She has nestled in and is soaking her injured ankle in the river. We hope that a couple of days of river therapy will make the five-mile hike up and out of here less painful.

 While she soaks, I turn a slow circle, taking in the variegated canyon walls and morning sun sparkling on water in this ancient thermal basin with a river running through it. A spot midway between Mary and the runoff from a bubbling thermal feature calls me.  I amble over, strip, and wade into the river.  The cold water shocks and soothes.  I splash my face, arms, and chest but I'm not yet ready to plunge into this river that we’ve come to know and love over the years. 

 The 692-mile-long Yellowstone River begins near the Continental Divide south of the park and meanders through the Thorofare.  It is one of more than 140 tributaries that feed Yellowstone Lake, the largest North American lake above 7,000 feet. The Yellowstone is the only river that exits the lake. It broadens as it meanders through wildlife-filled Hayden Valley.  It picks up speed and drops over the beautiful Upper and Lower falls, rushes into this Grand Canyon that it has cut over the millennia. Within that twenty-four-mile canyon we sit, insignificant below 1,200-foot high walls.  Happy to be still, I settle in to observe, write, and photograph.

 10:30 A.M. 84° A bee lands on the page of my journal.  We stare at each other as he makes his way along a sentence past the subject, over the verb, and onto an adverb. Is he an editor? If so, he is the enemy of honest journalling, I bend forward and gently blow him off the page. He flies toward Mary.

 From my right comes the constant rumble of a thermal feature: sulfur-scented steam rushes from two holes in the bank. Below the holes steaming water flows to the Yellowstone.  I stand, walk to where the river greets the runoff, and step in. “Hey,” I yell to Mary, “there’s warm water here if you want it for your ankle.”  

 But she has found her own sweet mix of runoff and river. She yells back to me, "Hot water!  I can't believe it. This place has everything a girl could want." I smile as she dowses herself in the therapeutic mixture.

 1:45 P.M. 88°  The sun hangs high in the cloudless southern sky.  Strong, vertical sunlight washes out some of the colors on the canyon walls.  Shadows from small clusters of trees along the river bank add gray, a new color to the changing mix.  

 A dry, warm wind rustles downstream, rippling the river’s surface and scattering the sun's diamonds.  A grasshopper flies by leaving “CLACKETY, CLACKETY, CLACKETY” dangling. The clothes I scoured in the river an hour ago are bone dry.  Having sat unencumbered for a couple of hours, I don the protection of long pants, long sleeved shirt, and a hat.

 2:30 P.M. 90°  The summer sun bears down. No clouds.  When I stand and face upriver, the wind threatens to steal my hat. A bright red dragonfly buzzes by, dipping and rising, inspecting our mutual home on this beach.  As it departs, I listen to the canyon's chorus of wind in the trees and water lapping the bank. I feel the magic of sitting still.

 3:45 P.M. 90°  Mary and I awaken from a nap, having sprawled fully dressed on the gravel, drugged by the feel of the heat and the whispers of the river.  Shadows have lengthened on the cliff, some spots are solid shade. I study three seedlings perhaps two feet tall, growing straight and true from a 45-degree slope across the river. I marvel at their drive to survive. 

 Shading my eyes, I look skyward and discover clouds, some in the shape of a giant horsetail.  Others are thicker, sails on a pirate ship, moving east, high above the top of the canyon.  A cricket chirps unseen from the cool shade of a nearby boulder.  A duck, barely a foot above the river, zips upstream. What’s his rush?

 Sitting here all day is the ultimate extension of the travel philosophy Mary and I have settled into over the years: the slower you go, the more you see.  Driving in a car, a mile zips by in about a minute.  Riding a bicycle, a mile rolls by in four or five.  Hiking in the backcountry, a mile lingers for about 30 minutes and even that sometimes seems too fast.  

 5:05 P.M. 88°  The clouds have unionized.  No longer separate little puffs, they have banded together, flexing their muscles, creating thick masses with battleship gray bottoms and few breaks that cover more than half the sky and drift slowly eastward, as if they resent being pushed by the wind and demand more time to block the sun.  

 In their diffused light, the river turns darker green, edges toward ominous.  The colors on the opposite bank, on the other hand, have grown richer.  I discern light green, orange, and yellow where earlier I only saw tan. I discover layers in the opposite bank, striations hidden until the light of now.  What is the story behind the flows that laid these deposits again and again?

 6:00 P.M. 84°  There is so much to see, hear, taste, smell, feel.  So much to learn.  What I don't know about this place—this small length of a grand canyon—fills volumes.  The little I do know fills my senses and my heart.  

 After a day of sitting with the Yellowstone, I decide that if I had the good fortune to choose the place where I could die, this is it: lying beside cool green water on coarse white gravel, listening to the wind through trees and the rumble of thermal features, inhaling the pungent smell of sulfur one last time, and then letting go, exhaling, my final breath moving downstream with the wind and water.

 Rick Lamplugh lives near the north gate of Yellowstone and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.


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