My friend Dave is a private pilot and geologist. Heading up to Yellowstone for work last week, he let me know I could hitch a ride. I had recently spent a month exploring Yellowstone doing guidebook research, and now I was tied to my chair doing the more tedious part of the project--writing.
Never underestimate the power of a free ride.
The Longmont, Colorado airport occupies one free sliver seemingly under ambush by the surrounding tract housing in oppressive pastels. Tall grass fringing the runway reminds you that this was the frontier--once. We stuff our duffels in the rear of a battered Cessna. Dave brought gps receivers, an iphone, Luna bars...
"Aren't those for women?" I ask him.
"Hey man, they're good." That's Dave.
As soon as you cross over Wyoming's 1-80, the nothingness swallows you. This could be Nambia or Mars for all you know. The earth stretches flat in sheets, brown and fissured, forms broad mountains and cakey bluffs streaked with red and alabaster. There is the occasional river, looking like an emaciated garter snake. Or cows, looking like....aliens. Without assistance, what could live down there?
"That's strange," Dave said, "It says the battery's dying in the GPS."
I groaned. We were just heading into weather, with thunderheads dotting the route ahead. Earlier, Dave had boasted that we had better instrumentation than a 737. But apparently, hooking up live to satellite weather drains the juice pretty quickly.
"I bet those storms up there are shallow," he said. I didn't reply, since the declaration was probably just a stab of psychology.
The storms are shallow. We weave a path through them and then I climb in back to rummage for the other GPS in Dave's bag. Without my lined headphones, the roar is deafening. It takes a few minutes for Dave to set it up, during which time I have to hold the wheel. "Don't take take your time there..." I warn. He looks over and smiles. Damn it, he has his ipod on under his earphones. Did he hear a word?
Flying is always an exercise in surrender and this flight is no exception.
After the second gps battery got low we decided to shut it off and save it for landing. Now I am pouring through maps for our location. Mountains hem the wings. We are approaching Togwotee Pass. I remember driving it. "Just follow the road Dave," I say.
But limiting a pilot to a roadway is like asking a fish to take a lap lane. It doesn't last long.
The first landmark in the park is Heart Lake, which better resembles a set of lungs under the parched peak of Mount Sheridan. We fly over Shoshone Lake, the country's biggest backcountry lake, rimmed by pine forest deep in the woods. Then we head up to the geysers.
Yellowstone sits in an enormous crater. It is the most geothermally active spot on earth. We see fumaroles pouring white steam from the earth, grouped like campfires in a village. Geyser pools are turqouise, shimmering. Prismatic Spring is a puckered eye in a chalky basin rimmed by green, yellow and burned orange.
I am pressed against the glass, breathless.
From here the roads appear to be quaint tracks--even the RVs look like playthings, lost in the vastness. Dave's mission is to convince the park to bore holes hundreds of feet in the earth to put in expanders to study shifting pressures. (The research already under way studies mere movement.) There have been shifts: the lake is tipping, the trees at the southern end dying, creek drainages changing directions. Surface changes of as much as a few centimeters a year.
But this is geek stuff. No one would see it without instruments.
There's risk--boring a hole into the same plumbing that makes Old Faithful spurt every 70 minutes. And then there's the sense that instrumentation can provide reams of data, but understanding what is precious or even precarious begins with the view of the whole picture. And today, it's a great one.