I need it. To feel small, even insignificant, in the face of nature’s works nourishes me. I seek that nourishment daily.
From my home at the base of the Sandia Mountains to the beautiful old Mabel Dodge Luhan House at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Taos, I drove for miles alongside the Rio Grande as the road climbed from Española into the gorge of the river that flows from a source high in Colorado’s Southern Rockies to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. It rippled over basalt boulders that had tumbled into its bed from the steep slopes above. Winter bare cottonwoods revealed their convoluted forms, another of nature’s graceful sculptures. Light glinted off the faces of boulders burnished with desert varnish. I imagined the music of the river, a constant murmur, overshadowed that day by the whoosh of the wind, whose gusts the soaring crows danced upon, riding waves of air. I could drive this stretch of road every day, and still it would inspire my awe.
That awe, the wonder of nature – from the minute gleam of an obsidian ‘Apache tear’ glimpsed on a trail to the mighty basalt cliffs that tower over the narrowest reaches of the Rio Grande Gorge – provides perspective that helps me handle the shock and awe (of a much different sort) that assails on a daily basis, reading the news of humans seemingly endless supply of inhumanity.
Nearly every day (yes, sometimes I forget), I walk in gratitude to live in places were nature is so reachable. I can touch the paper thin wisp of a seed pod. I can hear it rattle in the breeze. I can watch a lizard no bigger than my pinky finger scurry into the protective spines of a prickly pear’s paddles. I hear the coyotes’ howls echoing through arroyos, their pups’ yips and yaps new voices in nature’s song. But even in the city, there is birdsong, the rustle of bare trees’ branches in the wind, and the occasional passing of a coyote. Wherever I am, I can find it – awe – if I remember to look, to listen.
The next morning, I woke to the hush that blankets the landscape with even a dusting of snow. Always a blessing in the desert, this winter any moisture is a particular gift given the parched season we’ve had. I scooped up a handful, and as I lifted it to contemplate the intricacies of the delicate flakes, the sun peeked through a cloud break and shone over my shoulder. Nature’s wonder sparkled there, right in the palm of my hand.
Hat pulled low, hands cozy in ski mitts, I wiggled my toes to keep them warm in wooly socks. I walked from the lodge to Old Faithful Geyser in the dim light of the winter evening. The snow compressed beneath my boots, squeaking with each step. The sounds of snow – one of the many things I love about winter.
I left the others seated by a crackling fire after one of the finest days of cross-country skiing I’d ever had – the weather, cold enough not to get overheated skiing, but warm enough to stop and enjoy the landscape and wildlife; the snow perfect; and the company, the best of friends. After skiing together to Lone Star Geyser in the morning, we’d all chosen different routes back. That evening, my friend, Nancy, and I still glowed from our afternoon’s accomplishment. We’d taken a beautiful, but tough trail back. We’d fallen plenty and stopped to catch our breath more, but we’d done it! We definitely earned the thousand-calorie Belgian hot chocolate we indulged in upon returning.
I made my way to the boardwalk and benches surrounding Old Faithful that overflows with people from around the globe on summer days. In the crisp cold a crescent moon shone through wispy clouds whisking on the wind, the stars blinked, and I was the only one there. Well, the only human. If others were nearby, bison or coyote, perhaps, they didn’t make their presence known to me. I hoped I wasn’t disturbing their peace, they get gawked at enough (by me too, whenever I have the opportunity).
Old Faithful is faithful, but not exact. Eruptions occur roughly 60 to 100 minutes apart, plus or minus 10 or more minutes. Never silent, the geyser spurt and sputtered, and each time I wondered if the eruption was starting. Natural hot springs that don’t always flow, geysers erupt steam and water, sometimes high into the air, at varying or somewhat regular intervals depending on the configuration of their underground ‘plumbing.’ That isn’t piping, of course, but the natural conduits in the bedrock through which water and steam rise from the subsurface.
I strolled along the boardwalk, built to protect the fragile crust of travertine from the hordes who come to see and hear and feel this wonder of nature. I waited patiently, at first. I turned my back to the wind for a while, then jogged in place, kept moving to stay warm. Three, four, five times, steam and water shot a few feet in the air. I could hear the droplets raining down on the surrounding stone. Then it would settle. I began to think I’d missed the eruption by a few short minutes.
Even if I did, I couldn’t complain. On our first day here, it seemed that every geyser we skied up to, erupted just as we pulled our cameras from our pockets. Bison had posed, the sun glowing on their thick coats. A coyote had lingered along the fence overlooking Punch Bowl Spring, despite five of us skiing to within fifty feet or so. Pawing at the frozen ground, he feasted on some morsel while we watched, his golden eyes peering at us now and then to make sure we kept our distance. He’d run away when the spring began to thump. We could feel the vibration from the ground up through our skis into our legs, the hum of Earth’s geothermal ‘engine’ so near the surface in Yellowstone. .
When the hiss of steam grew louder, then rose to a rumble, there was no mistaking it, I had not missed the eruption. Hot water gushed forth, a cloud of steam billowed high. I’m sure there are many people who have been a lone witness to this, but I felt (and still feel) immense gratitude for those moments, standing beside Old Faithful, alone.
Our oldest National Park, established on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone is a magical place in every season. But the beauty of this natural gem truly shines in winter – I wish I could capture the way the sun sparkles on fresh snow, the shush of Spring Creek, the hot springs’ sulfurous scent, the way snow cakes in the fur of a bison’s massive head as it grazes, or the glub of boiling mud in the Fountain Paint Pots. But I can’t. You’ll just have to go.
Happy Birthday, Yellowstone National Park!
Many thanks to Eric Hubbard for his wildlife pictures from the trip.
Geologists study the earth and the processes that shape it. Writers study the human heart and the processes that shape it. The GeologistWriter builds a bridge between the two. Come across it with me!