What Lies Beneath

IMG_1460Dateline—May 2016, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

I am at dinner in our hotel in the Grand Tetons. At the table next, a woman and her pre-school grandson sit, heads-together and leaning over a book. “That is the sacred heart of Jesus!” the grandmother says. It’s an odd conversation for the dinner table. Soon, a server arrives and asks the family about their travels. “Yellowstone was just awful,” the grandmother says. “I’ve heard people say that before,” says the server. I worry. Yellowstone is our next stop on our Wyoming journey, How could the oldest national park in the world be “awful?”

Within days, I am at Yellowstone, a steamy landscape that looks like Mars with water. I expect to see the young Luke Skywalker zoom over the horizon on a hovercraft. Geysers, springs, mud pots, dead trees stacked like pick-up-sticks, herds of bison crossing highways, warnings of scald-injuries for walking on ground near steaming holes, and animal scat dotting the soil. A woman dressed in a Smokey Bear hat explains that the scat will remain there, untouched. Scat has its purpose in the circle of life, as does everything in this strange place.

Yellowstone is a caldera (aka crater) in the middle of mountains. Under our feet is an active volcano—the source of the steam. Magma several miles underground heats and recirculates water that has seeped into the ground. According to the National Park Service,”Nothing can be done to prevent an eruption. The temperatures, pressures, physical characteristics of partially molten rock, and immensity of the magma chamber are beyond human ability to impact—much less control.” The Earth rules.

The landscape is magnificent but not lovely. I can imagine the grandchild asking his grandma, “Why are the trees dead? Why is there mud bubbling out of the hole? Why is the earth cracked and steamy? How come it smells so bad?”

Everything is alive here —the mud pots bubbling, springs steaming, geysers erupting, animal poop recycling. The dynamic water features will outlast every tourist strolling along the surrounding boardwalks.

This steamy landscape reminds me of memoir writing. When writers tell their life stories, there is so much that lies beneath, Our memories bubble up from the heat of experience. Some missives steam or bubble. Others explode. Either way, there is surreal beauty to life stories.