Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Renewal and wonder at Yellowstone


Most people have at least one place that allows them to feel their very best, a place that awakens their senses and connects them to whatever they accept as being divine or spiritual.

That place for me is a national park.

A few days ago, I visited Yellowstone, established in 1872 as the world's first national park. Although I have come here many times, each visit is a life-renewing experience.

The 2.2 million-acre park, much of it on top of volcanic plateaus, has crystalline lakes, waterfalls and steaming geysers. As soon as I drive through the Roosevelt Arch, I turn off my concern about the day-to-day madness of social and cultural issues and election politics.

Once through the arch, I am pulled into a world of vastness. Jagged peaks rise above the clouds. Pine, cottonwood, juniper, chokecherry and aspen paint the distant slopes with variegated greenery.

Having familiarized myself over the years with many of the park's wildflowers, I recognize bitterroot, hollyhock, Colorado columbine, wild blue flax, balsamroot and many others in the meadows. And I recognize many of the birds: pine grosbeak, red-tailed hawk, American dipper, golden eagle, sage grouse and magpies.

Large animals do not appear until I reach Mammoth Hot Springs, where a herd of elk feed alongside the road. These majestic creatures, although wild, have learned that they are protected by park personnel and that we visitors are more awed than threatening.

In Lamar Valley, nicknamed the "American Serengeti," hundreds of bison roam freely — as they should.

If you are patient and stop often, you will be as richly rewarded as I was. In addition to bison and elk, I, along with dozens of other visitors from around the world, was honored by the appearance of a black bear and her two cubs eating berries in a valley. Like others, I photographed the bears and studied them through my binoculars. We caused a traffic jam and were shooed on by a ranger.

Because of their reputation for speed, ferocity and intelligence, I am always humbled whenever I see bears in the wild. As a nation, we should forever guarantee the safe and healthy survival of this species in its natural habitats.

I was not disappointed when I did not see gray wolves, reintroduced to the park in 1995. They are some of the smartest animals in Yellowstone, totally in tune with the dynamics of survival. They avoid human contact. We, therefore, must learn about their ways, how they observe and react to our presence.

Like the approximately 4 million other people who visit Yellowstone annually, I am struck by the enduring damage of the 1988 fires that affected 793,880 acres. As is nature's way, the flora of the park, its trees, flowers, shrubbery and grasses, are renewing.

And there is the other source of severe damage. The 15-year bark beetle epidemic has turned 40 million acres of the nation's forests, which includes Yellowstone, into red-and-gray dead zones, creating fire hazards of their own with thousands of acres of fuel, much of it fallen and rotting. The long dry spell adds to the potential for further damage.

Yellowstone's physical environment is one of the most spectacular in the world, and I am always spellbound by it. But I also am a people watcher, and Yellowstone attracts a special breed of domestic and international visitors.

One of my most vivid memories of this trip came as I ate lunch at the Lava Creek picnic area. A mother and her three young children skipped rocks across the rushing water. She then let them wade. One kid swam, in his underwear, across the rocky tributary and back. His mother and siblings clapped and cheered when he crawled onto the bank. I put my hand in the water. It was icy cold.

For me, this family's experience epitomizes the value of Yellowstone National Park, a place where one can become renewed, where a return to innocence can be as simple as watching a kid in his underwear swim across Lava Creek.

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