The Slack-Jawed Visitor
by Laura Bickle
Inspiration sneaks up on me. The best creative juice isn’t stuff that I’ve planned. It just happens. And experiencing Yellowstone National Park was like that for me.
Several years ago, my husband went to Wyoming for a conference, and I decided to tag along. It had been a long time since I’d had a vacation, and I was looking forward to sleeping in, seeing some pretty scenery, and maybe getting back on a horse again before I forgot how.
What I got was a whole lot more. I got Yellowstone National Park. I was enchanted. Everything was larger-than-life. Mountains loomed overhead, gathering rain that hadn’t touched the ground, peaks shrouded in clouds. The sky was vaster than it was back home – I swear that it was twice as big and three times as moody. Beavers swam in roadside creeks, baby beavers mimicking their parents dam-building by carrying sticks. Bison stood in grassy fields by the dozen, muttering to each other in dark knots. Every so often, a pronghorn would wander through the grass and sage with calves. Pools of technicolor water swirled in cobalt and canary colors. Steam hissed from a cave, exhaling like a dragon. Crusty minerals rimmed pockets of hot water that bubbled like cauldrons. A wolf slipped through the shadows. Everything felt close, vivid, and utterly alive.
It was magic. Every bit of it. And I knew that I had to write about it, to make this land a character in a book.
I soaked it up. When I got home, I began scribbling. I thought about how this Technicolor place must be rooted in magic, how it might have been founded by an alchemist in another place or time. I scratched out notes about what kinds of things the wildlife perceive, if the coyotes are brave enough to approach humans. I thought about old gods and new technologies. I wondered about whether there might be a basilisk or two sleeping in the bottoms of those burbling mudpots. The ravens were brave and intelligent…what if they were influenced by a magical intelligence, something that drew them out of the skies to gossip among themselves?
I owe a lot to the folks who preserve such places, the people who keep them wild and magical and untouched. I saw what was before the curtain…but also curious about who was behind it, making certain that the world is honored and protected in such an invisible fashion.
The Woman Behind the Curtain
by Emily B. Martin
Laura’s right. There is indeed magic in Yellowstone. I know. I’m a park ranger. I can tell you where to find the best magic. Like the t-rex that lives near Old Faithful.
(Paleontologists everywhere start yelling at their screens.)
No, really. That scene in Jurassic Park where Jeff Goldblum is in the back of the Jeep, and hears the impact tremor of the oncoming rex? Thoom, thoom, thoom. That’s the best analogy I can make to describe Black Sand Pool, a short walk from the Old Faithful Visitor Center.
I met Black Sand Pool well after I got acquainted with its flashier siblings, the crowd-pleasing geysers, crystalline hot springs, and multicolored bacterial mats. I walked out to see it with a few other new rangers during a break in our training week. Full to bursting with updates on bison, bears, and road closures, we were looking for a short respite. So we headed to Black Sand for a “surprise,” promised one of the veteran rangers.
We approached the pool. At first glance, it looked like nothing terribly special—not turbulent enough to froth and spit like some of the others, not suitable to support the colorful, heat-loving bacteria that create rainbows elsewhere. It was just a murky blue, surrounded by black obsidian sand. We pointed out this lackluster appearance to the vet ranger who had brought us there, ribbing him for dragging us out in the geyser basin when we could have gotten ice cream instead.
To which he replied, “shut up!”
We shut up.
And that’s when we heard it.
Thoom, thoom, thoom.
The oncoming Tyrannosaurus rex, its footfalls shaking the earth, vibrating our eardrums. Following the round of tremors, the light shifted in the heart of Black Sand Pool, and it belched—a spate of noisy, irreverent bubbles blorping to the surface.
I believe I squealed and clapped my hands like a child, delighted. We stayed for half an hour, waiting in rapt silence for the next round of dinosaur footsteps and burping water.
A ranger’s job is a demanding one—hundreds of people all need something from you every day, often bringing you the same questions over and over. Mid-summer burnout is a real thing, and it’s easy to momentarily forget that there’s real magic here when parking lots are full and frustrations are high.
It’s experiences like my first moment at Black Sand Pool that help me remember that my role is to guide people to find that magic in the park. Sure, they want to see Old Faithful erupt, and the kids want to see a bear, but I’ve sent plenty of frazzled, worn-out families on the short walk off the beaten path to sit quietly by Black Sand, waiting for the t-rex. That’s my job—not simply education, but provocation as well. That firing of the imagination, that belief that magic does exist wrapped up in science.
Of course there are no dinosaurs in Yellowstone. Trapped air in the natural plumbing system of the hot spring produces periodic ground vibrations and escaping bubbles.
At least, that’s what the rangers want you to think.