Twelve eager but green hikers ranging in age from 47 to 59 find spectacular vistas and challenges in Yellowstone National Park.
On her own at age 55 after a 36-year marriage ended in divorce in 1999, kindergarten teacher Linda Pauk of Glen Carbon, Mo., was looking for something new and exciting to do.
She found it last summer on a hiking trip in Yellowstone National Park with the tour company the World Outdoors.
Pauk and 11 others in our group hiked for six days through geyser basins and thick forests, through meadows dotted with wildflowers, up steep trails to mountain summits and down narrow dirt paths to the bottom of spectacular waterfalls.
We saw bison, elk, sheep, marmots, a coyote and a black bear.
We went horseback riding through scenic Yellowstone back country, ate a picnic lunch on the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and took a dip in Boiling River and lived to tell about it.
Our group stayed at four hotels over five nights, including two grand, historic structures _ Old Faithful Inn and Lake Yellowstone Hotel.
But above all, we hiked. Ranging in age from 47 to 59, with 10 women and two men, our group of inexperienced hikers was looking for a hard challenge while still having a soft bed to fall into at night.
Over the six days, led by two guides, the group hiked 25 to 30 miles and ascended 3,500 to 4,400 feet in elevation, depending on how ambitious each hiker was.
"I've never hiked like this before," said Pauk. "I wanted to be with people who had experience and could tell me what to do and what not to do."
The World Outdoors (formerly Roads Less Traveled and the World Outside) billed the trip as "easy to moderate." That suited Karen Speziale Hutcheson.
"I really wanted to take an easy hiking trip because I wasn't sure what I could do and couldn't do," she said. Hutcheson, who lives in Modesto, Calif., said: "I wanted to see Yellowstone, do day hiking and sleep in a comfortable bed at night."
The fact that this trip was for solo travelers _ no couples _ also appealed to Pauk and Hutcheson. They were among the six divorced women in the group, searching for soul mates and security.
"Part of it is the safety factor," Pauk said. "Men can go out and hike alone, at least more than women can."
"I just didn't want couples, couples, couples, families," said Kathleen Billings, a single middle-school counselor from Minneapolis. "I didn't want kids on the trip."
Nearly all the members of the group were eager but green hikers, and nearly all prepared for the trip with city hikes or fitness programs. But that doesn't mean everyone was gung-ho from the word go.
Among those with trepidation going into the trip was Jude Compofelice of Houston. She had been doing two to three miles a day on her treadmill, but the World Outdoors' catalog said our hikes would be as long as six miles.
"My concern was the distances and the elevations," she said at the trip's end. "But as scary as it sounded, it wasn't bad. They have hikes that make it challenging to get to the end. It was exciting."
Sharing Yellowstone National Park with its wildlife is, of course, fun and educational, as illustrated by this exchange as one of our guides pointed out a marmot near a trail at Old Faithful.
Voice in the back of the group: "What is it we're looking at?"
Another voice in the back: "A ground-something, with a tail."
Old Faithful was our first big treat. Or maybe second. Before the group assembled in Jackson, Wyo., on Day 1, those of us who had flown in had been treated to a jet's-eye view of the spectacularly craggy and snow-capped Tetons, near the base of which the Jackson Hole airport sits.
The Tetons proved to be a tough act to follow. After a 61-mile drive from Jackson to Yellowstone, the southern section of the park seemed drab by comparison.
The fires that ravaged Yellowstone in 1988 affected about 36 percent of the park. They left an eerie calling card that will take many more years to erase: vast hillsides of burned tree trunks, some still standing, others lying about like fallen matchsticks. Rising out of the ground, though, are waist-high, 12-year-old pines that someday will turn the hills from brown and gray to green again.
(This year's fires in the West did only minimal damage to Yellowstone's back country.)
A quick first stop at West Thumb Geyser Basin turned the group's attention from mountains and fires to the mystery of Yellowstone's bubbling, gurgling hot springs, steaming pools and geysers.
West Thumb, situated at the southwest tip of Yellowstone Lake, is one of the spots in the park where, legend has it, mountain men could pull a fish out of the cold lake, sling it over their shoulder into a hot spring and cook it without taking the fish off the hook.
A few miles up the road is the Upper Geyser Basin, home of Old Faithful and the grand, venerable Old Faithful Inn, said to be the world's largest log structure. Completed in 1904, the 325-room hotel features an awe-inspiring, seven-story lobby built of pine log beams.
The inn has been a National Historic Landmark since 1987.
The geyser known as Old Faithful draws crowds for each of its timely eruptions, but numerous other, larger, geysers are nearby. They have names such as Beehive Geyser and Giant Geyser, which spurts boiling water as high as 230 feet during its rare eruptions, compared with Old Faithful's maximum of about 180.
When the geysers are not erupting, they often emit puffs of steam, particularly in the cool air of morning or evening.
After a hike through the geyser basin and another hike to the lovely Mystic Falls, half the group opted for a day-capping ascent of 8,564-foot Bunsen Peak _ two miles uphill.
For Pauk, the teacher from Glen Carbon, the climb was a first big test.
"It was a real experience for me," she said, "because I've never climbed a mountain before. I didn't know if I could take another step, but I kept thinking about the children's book The Little Engine That Could _ "I think I can, I think I can.' But my heart was pounding through my head."
Our group's hike to the terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs was easy, but the next item on our agenda, a dip in Boiling River, was a courage-tester for some of us. Just below the Montana border, steaming water pours into the cool, fast current of Boiling River. The key to enjoying the river is to find a spot where the hot water and chilly water are in balance.
Before leaving Mammoth Hot Springs, we enjoyed a horseback ride at Mammoth Horse Corral, across the road from the terraces. Although the one-hour ride was slow-paced and nose-to-tail, the scenery _ enhanced by the soft glow of a late-afternoon sun _ was magnificent.
Riding through back country covered with sagebrush and wildflowers, we were treated to the sight of vast vistas, a twinkling aspen meadow and a single coyote that stopped to watch us pass.
After a night's rest, we traveled east in a van and then south, looking out at amazingly vast valleys and distant mountains, a scene that looked like a mural. Along the way we stopped for a quick visit to Tower Fall and a steep hike of six-tenths of a mile to the bottom, where visitors get close enough to be sprayed by the falls splashing against rocks.
The three waterfalls that we visited _ Mystic, Tower and the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone _ were among the most moving visuals on the trip.
"This is what I came for," said Leonore Gerstein, a speech pathologist from Ann Arbor, Mich., after the view of Tower Fall. "I would have been disappointed if we'd just seen geysers. I'm such a romantic, I need spectacular vistas."
The park's most inspiring sight may well be the Lower Falls, where the Yellowstone River spills 308 feet and creates a curtain of spray and mist at the bottom.
For 24 miles, the Yellowstone River runs through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. From a distant mountaintop, the canyon looks like a gash in the earth; at close range, it reveals steep walls of volcanic rock, colored in hues of beige, orange, yellow, red and brown, rising high above the river.